Based on the Oprah-honored book that so many serious backpackers hurled against the wall—”Goddamn it, she’s dumber than Christopher McCandless!”—Wild may also raise hackles outside the hiking community, in spite of the fact that it’s Dallas Buyers Club-director Jean-Marc Vallee’s best movie to date. Some even who prefer to camp with a Coleman cooler will watch and indulge in some good old-fashioned slut-shaming, since Wild‘s author, Cheryl Strayed, told all about her extra-marital affairs and dabbling with heroin.
Wild integrates Strayed’s troubled past with her lonely journey up the Pacific Crest Trail, thanks to lapidary editing and the aid of Nick Hornby’s fine script. The trek along the spine of California and Cascadia commences with a gross grabber—Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) peeling off a bloody toenail caused by ill-fitting boots. She’s a noob hiker who never gave enough thought to the equipment and discipline she would need for the journey. She adapts, learning from helpful walkers, and a little product placement courtesy of REI. But as she gets better as a hiker, she’s still an outsider: sussed out as a harlot by a motel owner and gently persuaded to leave a boutique when she’s too rank from the trail. The vistas are there, but so are threatening yokels and unhelpful forest rangers (pissy martinets, horndogs, or both). We get all of the beauty and none of the blisters, but this isn’t a movie about a girl who walks and walks and walks.
You may have winced at the line in the coming attractions—”My mother was the love of my life”—but Vallee illuminates this movie with a shining ghost. Laura Dern’s performance as the mother shows this great actress’s grace, sturdiness and tenderness. Humble and humiliated, yet she’s strong enough to be likened visually to a red fox and a big-eyed horse, and you never think “mixed metaphor.”
Wild requires comparison to Tracks, a film released earlier this year about a difficult woman’s journey on foot through Australia. Tracks is still maybe my favorite—it’s the difference between a serious movie star like Witherspoon holding your attention when she’s just studying the horizon, and the deeper down extremes Mia Wasikowska plumbed. (And the greater distance enchants. Walk across Australia and you might meet an Aborigine and hear spellbinding tales of Dreamtime; walk the PCT and you might meet a bunch of BYU students on holiday.) Yet when director John Curran tried to explain (unnecessarily) what made Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson take her hike, he floundered.
It’s different here. Witherspoon emotes the combination of failure to save her mother and the paralytic shame at not being able to get over it. Cheryl’s pain is believable, and her bad behavior is explained articulately. Maybe when she’s doing the hipster thing—she and her ex-husband getting matching divorce tattoos—it isn’t as affecting, since the pathos is lacking. The marriage would have ended anyhow, since there’s no better way to finish off a couple than to give them his ‘n’ her tats.
In her career, Witherspoon’s grit has been upstaged by her alarmingly chipper smile; we forget how down and dirty she can be. Example: Freeway, a movie in need of a cult, where Witherspoon fended off a stoned, cruising cellmate (Brittany Murphy). “I like girrlllss…” “You can have ’em,” she retorted.
Don’t let people dismiss Witherspoon’s work here as award-season extremity: showing us a body rubbed raw by the overloaded backpack, or also letting that same body be used by a pair of mooks, in the alley behind the restaurant where Cheryl waitressed. The story of mourning and reclaimed pride is affecting, and it’s Witherspoon’s toughness that makes it so. The music—eh, “El Condor Pasa” dumps a little too much Andean angst over the mountain climbing; so much so that even a loose Grateful Dead cover song heard in Ashland sounds good by comparison. It’s not that a version of “Red River Valley” sung by a boy on the trail is as touching as Christine Kubrick’s tune in Paths of Glory…but almost. It captures the overwhelming quality of hearing music after a long passage of silence.
R; 115 min.