Man-against-nature stories are fairly common. Women-against-nature…well, that’s a rarer breed.
In “Wild” a perfectly unglamorous Reese Witherspoon plays real-life writer Cheryl Strayed, who some years ago hiked more than 1000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the Mexican border and ends in Canada.
Strayed‘s story, as recorded in her 2012 memoir Wild, was both an escape from a tormented past (a failed marriage and drug addiction, for starters) and a long trek toward self discovery.
That journey, and the agonizing personal history that got it all started, have been effectively realized by Witherspoon (another Oscar nomination seems inevitable) and director Jean-Marc Vallee, who guided Matthew McConaughey to a best actor Oscar in “The Dallas Buyers’ Club.”
That earlier film was a middling movie elevated by a terrific lead performance. “Wild” raises the bar considerably — not only is Witherspoon superb (for much of the movie it’s just her and the scenery), but the storytelling technique proffered by Valee and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “An Education”) almost perfectly captures the key elements of Strayed‘s tale through visual and aural poetry rather than conventional narration.
The film begins with Strayed, a tenderfoot in both the literal and figurative sense, setting out on the trail maintained by the National Park Service.
She has crammed her backpack with so much equipment that she moves like Atlas straining to lift the entire Earth. The damn thing is so heavy it constantly threatens to flip her onto her back and leave her clawing the air like a helpless turtle.
Her new hiking boots are too tight, resulting in blood and blisters. Initially she’s lucky to cover five miles a day. She has never pitched a tent before, or tried to cook on a propane camp stove. She’s not sure how to deal with the rattlesnake in her path or the coyotes that howl all night.
But she’ll learn, just as she’ll learn to deal with heat and snow and physical exhaustion.
And she keeps at it even when more experienced hikers have dropped out.
“I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.”
There are adventures and encounters — with animals and humans — and these “now” passages are interspersed with moments from Strayed’s past.
We witness her childhood with an abusive father but mostly with a single mother (Laura Dern) who tried to instill in her daughter a sense of joy and adventure; her failed marriage (her husband is played by “Newsroom’s” Thomas Sadoski), and years of sexual promiscuity and drug use.
These snatches of the past are presented not in conventional scenes but in impressionistic flashes. Their very lack of formal structure is a big asset — they keep “Wild” from becoming a Lifetime Original Movie, a melodramatic chronicle of a woman’s slide into depravity.
Occasionally Witherspoon provides voiceover — she’s not so much commenting on the action as providing poetic/literary ruminations. But the core of her performance is physical — expressing pain and weariness and determination without much dialogue.
Although she does appear fluent in swearing.
The heart of the film is the journey itself, sumptuously captured in Yves Belanger’s cinematography.
Mostly this is a one-woman show, but Strayed does have important interactions with other hikers and the folk she meets along the way.
There’s always the threat of predators — and not necessarily the four-legged kind. Early on Strayed requests aid from a fellow plowing a field late at night. Our immediate reaction is one of caution — this good ol’ boy (W. Earl Brown) might be the sort to keep a torture chamber in the cellar. Actually, he’s thoroughly domesticated and brings this stranger home to his wife and a home-cooked meal.
There’s an old veteran of the trail (Cliff De Young) who provides our heroine with solid advice about what not to lug across America, and assortment of fellow hikers who share stories and admonitions.
Mostly the people Strayed encounters are good folk.
And by the time she’s looking at Canada, Cheryl Strayed has become pretty good folk herself.