By now nearly everyone has either read Cheryl Strayed's book Wild or knows someone who has. So it's no secret that it tells the story of Strayed's attempt to hike the Pacific Coast Trail and the troubled and messy life she led prior to taking on that challenge.
It's a solid film, buoyed by all the foibles Strayed encountered during her trek, which are humorous for the most part, and especially by Reese Witherspoon's talent at keeping the character tough and interesting. The countryside is also nice, though it doesn't seem that Strayed appreciated it much, and the film seldom focuses on it for any length of time.
Many outdoor-folk will enjoy details about water filters, ill-fitting boots, sounds of the night, bad weather, persnickety camp stoves, unpalatable freeze-dried food, and hard-to-erect tents.
The fact that Sheryl is hiking alone brings an added element of danger to her encounters with men along the trail. Many of them help her along. A few are distinctly sinister. My favorite is the encounter she has while hitchhiking around snow in the high country. One man who stops can't pick her up, but he wants to interview her. He's a reporter for Hobo Times.
It's one of the few encounters in the film she doesn't need to fear but has no way to exploit.
Walking through deserts and woods for weeks on end can be tiresome, of course, not only for the hiker but also for the viewer. Director Jean-Marc Vallée deftly punctuates Sheryl's epic journey with flash-backs, thus fleshing out her character while also conveying how a radical divorce from day-to-day life can give someone almost too much time to mull over the past. We're introduced to her abusive father, her alarmingly cheerful mother, her very decent ex-husband, and the substance abuse and wanton promiscuity she'd indulged in for years before attempting the hike in an effort to cut through all the crap of normal life and feel something genuine.
It's pretty obvious that our hiker-heroine is angry at life and suffers from delusions of grandeur. By the end of the film she's learned how to grieve for her mother and she's exorcised a few demons. She's also done something difficult, something she can be proud of. Whether that was her intention remains unclear. Speaking later about the experience, Cheryl remarked, "I think it wasn't a heroic hike. I think it was a heroic battle to get back to myself." In any case, Witherspoon instills a sort of dignity and independence of spirit into her rendering of Strayed's effort that adds immeasurably to its impact.
The film is also a testament to the power of books. That Strayed has been influenced by Adrienne Rich and other authors is made clear in voice-over quotations. But the book that influenced her most profoundly is The Sierra Club Guide to the Pacific Crest Trail.
Wild is a first-class "outdoor" film, though in the end it doesn't quite measure up to such classics as Into the Wild, Touching the Void, or even The Way or Smoke Signals, which also ends with a soliloquy on a bridge in Washington State. Maybe this is because it remains focused too relentlessly on a single character who's trying to learn things many viewers already know. It's like a mountain stream, rugged and beautiful but also turbulent and difficult to cross, and more or less the same on either side.