The new film Wild captures an element of hiking along out on a trail in manner I’ve never quite seen onscreen before. Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is on a solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a relative novice as a hiker, but sees the endurance test as necessary part of rediscovering and reclaiming her better self, the inner person who’d gone missing after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Somewhat deprived of the sort of dialogue exchanges between characters that are the grease which keeps narrative gears moving smoothly, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Vallée go deep into Cheryl’s thoughts. This sometimes manifests as a voiceover that sounds like fairly straightforward narration. In those instances, it’s usually clear that the words are pulled from the journal Cheryl keeps on her journey (this personal writing was surely the foundation of Strayed’s 2012 memoir from which the film is adapted). More often, the working of Cheryl’s mind is presented as a mélange of sounds: names, words, song lyrics that infiltrate the brain like distant echoes. These fragments float on the soundtrack until they gel into a specific memory, allowing the film to engage in the familiar process of filling in backstory through flashbacks. As opposed to the convenience of linearity opted for by most films, Wild strives to show how the mind and memory actually work, especially in relative isolation. There’s a lot of distracted flailing until some truth is arrived at, almost by accident.
While necessarily fragmented and episodic, Wild overall has the discipline of sound filmmaking rather than an overly loose energy that might mirror the scattering landslide of thought. In fact, there are a few instances when the scaffolding of the storytelling is a little too apparent, later moments of wrenching emotion set up a little too clearly and efficiently. Overall, though, the movie charges ahead with a profound sense of purpose. It is a single person’s story, but embedded within it are an abundance of sharp observations about how the world works, especially for women. The lengthy, lonely hike on the Pacific Coast Trail is full of beautiful vistas and moving encounters with the mosaic of nature. It is also fraught with danger, sometimes thanks to the treacherous unpredictability of humanity and sometimes simply from a single unfortunate choice, like a sidetrack on the wrong route or boots that aren’t quite the right size. Cheryl is out to discover herself through the reflection the great outdoors casts back at her. Sometimes that image is made murky by cruel interlopers who see her less as an inspiring wanderer and more as an opportunity for whatever menace they choose to perpetrate.
In what might very be her strongest performance to date, Witherspoon is especially good in those moments when Cheryl must calculate the risk in front of her. The awards show clips will undoubtedly focus on the bigger, tearier moments, but what really makes Witherspoon’s acting click is her commitment to the little moments, those that speak to the full experience undertaken by the Cheryl (she also nails the physical wilting that comes from carrying a heavy pack across multiple miles). Witherspoon does something here that I’ve sometimes found wanting in her other performances, even those that are most acclaimed. Through the commitment she brings to the totality of the characterization, she ties the disparate experiences together to show how they are all part of the same person, a reflection of her spirit while simultaneously shaping who she is. It’s a quality that is both simple and devilishly elusive in any performance, usually present in a subtly conveyed sense of inner spirit that is nearly indefinable. Wild is Cheryl’s journey. On some level, it’s also Witherspoon’s. It’s a testament to the performance that I’m not entirely sure which version of the journey is more meaningful.