I swear I tried to take this movie seriously. Reese Witherspoon-who stars and produced-is attempting a professional makeover. I’m all for her. Jean-Marc Vallee, the guy who gave us Dallas Buyer’s Club, directed, so how can one not expect great things? The script, based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir, was written by none other than Nick “High Fidelity” Hornby. What could go wrong?
As I watched the actress pretend to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for two hours, I reminded myself I was viewing an official For Your Consideration award screener. That this meant Wild is theoretically an awards caliber, even Oscar caliber, work. And yet, no matter how earnestly, how open mindedly I considered Witherspoon’s screen journey, I kept finding myself humming the theme to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
That’s not mature, I know. But, in my own defense, I think it only fair to point out that Wild is really kind of silly. Not that unfortunate things don’t happen to several of its characters. It’s just that neither Strayed, Hornby nor Vallee find much of significance to say about them. Certainly nothing one couldn’t find on a Hallmark card. In a lot less than two hours.
The problem’s the source material. In the summer of 1995, when she decided to walk 1,100 miles of the trail alone, Strayed wasn’t a writer, a philosopher or even a hiker. She was a 26 year old who had screwed up her life royally.
Following the death of her mother (played in flashbacks by Laura Dern), she married the most understanding guy in movie history. His name is Paul and he’s played in flashbacks by Thomas Sadoski. You know he’s the best husband ever when Strayed inexplicably starts having sex with strangers and disappearing for days to shoot heroin in a drug den and he not only forgives her but later writes her letters she receives at ranger stations along the trail telling her how much he admires her. You can’t make stuff like this up. I’m pretty sure.
In her book, Strayed never managed to connect the motivational dots between her self-destructive behavior and the decision to take a long, difficult, potentially dangerous walk, so it’s no surprise the movie’s creators aren’t more successful at making sense of her story. Yves Belanger’s cinematography is spectacular and the old Paul Simon songs are great, but what exactly are we watching here? An act of atonement? Liberation? Self-discovery? Redemption? In one of the film’s way too many flashbacks, Strayed admits she hasn’t a clue why she’s doing this. Contrast her mindset with those of the central figures in, say, Into the Wild and 127 Hours, and you can see how the movie might leave some feeling they’ve just endured a long slog to nowhere.
Witherspoon carries the film, along with a giant backpack which-get it?-symbolizes her baggage, and turns in a performance that’s solid, but not a lot more, again due to the limited richness of Strayed’s material. Wild chronicles the completion of a daunting physical challenge while intimating it’s about something more spiritual, more meaningful.
I couldn’t find a lot of meaning in her journey, much less in her climactic epiphany. Maybe I’m missing something. You tell me. The film closes in voiceover with the words “My life… mysterious, irrevocable, sacred. So very close, so very present. So very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be.” If you can make sense of that, then Wild‘s the movie for you. I’ll be honest: Even as I type this, I’m still humming the theme from Walk Hard.