Review by Ron Wells of the film Wild which is up for two Academy Awards: Actress in a Leading Role for Reese Witherspoon and Actress in a Supporting Role for Laura Dern. Note: I walked all 28oo miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in the mid-80s making me one of the first 20 women and the first 200 people to complete it. More notes on this below Ron’s review.
The Greek hero Odysseus had nothing on Cheryl Strayed who hiked the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail by herself, experiencing everything from anger and loneliness, to dangers upon her life, to trail “angels,” before ending her journey at the Bridge of the Gods. Odysseus would understand all of it, for Strayed also had to descend into hell before rising above the land of the dead with nothing but the knowledge that she had found a sort of personal redemption by “walking back to the way my mother thought I was.”
Wild, directed beautifully by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) from a penetrating and perceptive script by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity; About a Boy), is a huge accomplishment for Reese Witherspoon who not only stars in the film, but believed so completely in the project that she bought the rights to Strayed’s book before it was published, and then saw the film through to its completion.
Wild is a triumph for Witherspoon in every way imaginable, but especially in the way she strips herself naked, figuratively and literally, throwing away any concept of glamour, in order to get Strayed’s multifaceted character exactly right.
As depicted in the film, Strayed was far from an angel before she began her hike. The end of her marriage and the death of her mother threw her spiraling into drugs (including heroin), and promiscuous sex, all of which are shown here in explicit flashbacks while she is hiking the trail.
Her mother, played in an exceptionally strong supporting role by Laura Dern, is also seen as an abused wife who none-the less loved, protected, and, in unusual ways, inspired Strayed.
Still, it is Witherspoon as Strayed who will stay with you. Strayed was not even remotely prepared for this journey as seen by the backpack she lugged around (nicknamed “monster”), nor is the film suggesting that everyone should give this trek a try. Rather, the film focuses on the loss and loneliness that all humans feel and how those elements can further destroy one by leading into desolation and destructive behavior. And yet, the human spirit can never be written off. Strayed put her life in danger numerous times, and yet she not only lived to tell about it, but climbed back from her personal hell to become a new woman.
At journey’s end, Strayed had nothing: no money, no mother, no husband; and yet she had triumphantly regained her soul.
The music, only heard in bits and pieces, adds immensely to the film. Paul Simon’s “El Condor Pasa (If I could)”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne’ are only some of the powerful melodies that play over scenes of immense beauty and terrible hardships, but it is the singing of “Red River Valley” that will tear your heart out.
Odysseus had to kill at the end of his journey in order to regain the love of his life. Strayed, on the other hand, survived and crossed over the bridge into a new life after losing those she loved. For anyone who has lost a parent, or any loved one, and for those who have had their own journeys into the dark bleakness of life and yet still seen the redemptive power of light, this is a movie for you. The film allows you to discover that you can still be rich in love and find your best self, no matter the pain you’ve gone through.
Through it all, Strayed did as her mother wished and “put herself in the way of beauty.” It’s a powerful film, with a message well worth remembering.