Somehow Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) has found herself hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, which takes her hundreds of miles along the East of the United States with no company other than her own thoughts. Having reached the top of a high ridge, she sits down and takes off her boots and socks to examine her poor feet, and has to peel off a toenail because it is in such bad shape, causing her understandable pain. But as she does so, one of her boots topples over the cliff and into the gorge below, infuriating her so she throws the other half of the pair after it with a hearty yell. So how did she get to here? It all started when she decided she needed to get away from a tough life and actually achieve something…
Cheryl Strayed is a real person, and after penning her account of her hike she sent it to Witherspoon, who was on the lookout for stories to be adapted to films with a strong female theme, thus you can imagine her delight at finding this role for herself, given it allowed her to act out a selection of emotional scenes and a spot of physical hardship that many an actor felt they had to go through if they wanted a truly serious part to play. So it was that as producer she hired director Jean-Marc Vallée, who had just made the Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club, and Nick Hornby to write the screenplay, with the results that the overall effect was like guiding the audience on a trek through Cheryl’s mind, structured in that idiosyncratic fashion.
Therefore just as your mind will wander if you have a task to perform that is more physical than mental, we saw Cheryl’s memories, good and bad, surface and mill around on the screen, with us piecing together the path that took her to this feat of endurance where she, not having the experience of many of those undertaking the trail, was going to face some mighty odds stacked against her. That she overcame those odds was perhaps no surprise – she wouldn’t have written a book about how she gave up quarter of the way along – but as an extended metaphor for the journey through good and bad choices we each make in life, and in an inspirational style how they both shape us and with any luck make us into a better person, Wild was consciously in the mould of a self-help manual.
By example, as much as by instruction; maybe more for aside from the odd voiceover Cheryl was not here to lecture us, she was there to show us that the obstacles to happiness our existences tend to throw in our way need not be insurmountable. All very well if you had been through Hell and were successfully negotiating the state that brought you to, but not everyone did, so this was no help to those who hit a barrier and stalled for it offered no more advice than these experiences made you a more interesting individual, therefore if you pushed through them to the light at the end of the tunnel then more power to you. Note everyone appreciated this advice from a woman they were not necessarily going to approve of – promiscuous sex and rampant drug use were what she fell into, and audiences can be exceedingly judgemental, especially of women.
On the other hand, Strayed did turn her problems around, and this hike was a big part of that, showing that if she could survive this then she could survive the issues that brought her to her endeavour. The film did not sugarcoat in the slightest, we see Cheryl behaving very dubiously and outright recklessly in the flashbacks, yet these scenes serve to render her successes all the better. From the vistas she travels across – deserts, forests, mountains, through baking heat and freezing snow, there is an emphasis on the physical in service of the mental, as she had abused her body before (and worries men may abuse her body again) but now was using it to make a positive difference, so we see a lot of Witherspoon, not for titillation but to show the marks life has made on her, like the tattoo she had on divorcing her husband (Thomas Sadowski) or the bruises she has collected on her walk, making the gruelling drive to win out all the more palpable. True to Hornby, music was important, so snatches drift through the soundtrack as, say, she recalls her mother (Laura Dern) singing, assembling a collage of a personality in an absorbing watch, if more conventional than on first glance.