There is a scene in the middle of “Wild,” Jean-Marc Vallee and Nick Hornby’s biopic based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, in which Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) and her soon-to-be ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) are in a tattoo parlor receiving identical tattoos. Like several of the flashbacks that showcase the two characters, it begins ambiguous about what point in the couple’s relationship we are seeing them. We know already that Cheryl has abandoned (or perhaps, has been cast out of) her former life, lost, to find herself by trekking the Pacific Coast trail. But the endeavor to strip her recalls of temporality is one of the charms of “Wild”—we are on a physical journey with Cheryl (indeed, we begin with her last night in warm lodging and end as she arrives in the Pacific northwest), but as Cheryl is alone with her thoughts, so are we. Memories are often encased in conflicting emotions, and Cheryl’s reflection of her downward spiral is confusing, tragic, and eventually emboldening. Hundreds of miles from home, the tattoo’s connection to her former self may be a symbol of happiness, but the circumstances surrounding it may be devastating.
Not many people respond to the unfair travails of life by setting out on journeys of which they are, more or less, totally unprepared (though the films gives plenty of credit to her oversized backpack, seemingly based on Murphy’s Law). In this respect, Cheryl is an atypical heroine, an ideological feminist (by her own admission, and admonition) with a strong background of risk factors for devolving into reckless behavior. The film presents her with a discerning intellect as quickly as it subverts that by displaying how Cheryl can be overpowered by the irrational (in a session with a ‘$10-a-session’ therapist, she curtly admits that she is promiscuous and does drugs because they make her feel good when she does them, rather than feeling bad when she doesn’t). Rather than legitimizing her fall, the film asks us to observe. Cheryl knows she must be on that trail, and we can only hope she herself finds her reconciliation.
It is her relationship with her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) that is the bedrock of the film (Cheryl describes her mother as her “center”) and the focus of many of Cheryl’s reflections. Interestingly, she is in several ways Cheryl’s foil, and Cheryl’s journey is premised on her becoming the woman her mother wanted. Bobbi is as much the mother bear to Cheryl and her younger brother as she herself is powerless to the universe’s whims. She is a single mother against the world, which is not a wholly uncommon story, but the film implements several small devices to convey the complexities of the parent-child relationships. While Cheryl and Bobbi are driving one afternoon, Bobbi remarks that she sees the future in Cheryl just as the camera cuts to Cherl and a beam of light suddenly illuminates her face. Later, we see in the eye of Bobbi’s beloved horse the figures of both Cheryl and her brother. For a film that, in some respects, is based on the literal, these turns of symbolism keep the viewing fresh and engaging.
Which is not to say Cheryl’s adventure on foot is dull. Indeed, the hike itself is expertly staged and a joy to watch. Cheryl experiences the gamut—unpreparedness, bad weather, self-doubt, elation, pain, desperation, dehydration, the satisfaction of victory. She also meets a handful of hikers, wanderers, and bystanders along the way, the motives of each of whom are suspect. Vallee plays upon the uncertainty of these encounters for suspense, and one extended scene in which Cheryl feels compelled to fabricate a hiking partner is notable for the ability of Twizzlers to be a tension-releaser. We also learn a thing or two about embarking on a mission that requires careful planning. Cheryl’s experience eating cold mush for an extended period of meals speaks to that.
As to the performances, Witherspoon is voracious but not wholly unrestrained (a role like this may have benefitted from occasionally stepping outside the bounds of composure). We see basically three versions of Cheryl, but Witherspoon threads a consistency to Cheryl’s persona that inspires her discussions of college courses, freaking out over a caterpillar, and shooting up heroin. In the other major role, Dern is the gentle, goofy mother with an infectious attitude. At times she can be seen as overselling her part, but we must also remember that we are only viewing the impression that she made on Cheryl. Sadoski has little room to move besides being a beacon of safety and comfort, but he nicely walks a line between being Cheryl’s rock and transitioning to independence on a phone call between the two early on.
Also early on we see Cheryl packing her backpack on the first morning before she sets off. In a lightheartedly ridiculous scene, she struggles to even stand up with it on. Later, after some remarks from more experienced hikers, she sheds the weight significantly in a scene where she surveys the pack’s contents item by item. The film is not as explicit about Cheryl’s redemption, but we do leave her with a sense of perspective gained, which may be all Cheryl hoped to find.