Memories are so sensual. An old favorite song will bring you back to the first place you ever heard it; a particular blend of smells will put you in your grandmother’s kitchen (toasted bialys with cream cheese do it for me every time). ‘Wild’ communicates this idea better than almost any movie I can think of. As Cheryl Strayed hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada alone, sounds and sights she encounters on her physical journey send her—and the audience—on a psychological journey into her past, to learn exactly why she decided to embark on such a crazy and potentially dangerous expedition. Strayed hikes the PCT with a comically large backpack—“The Monster,” as a few of her fellow travelers dub it—but it’s clear that the heaviest baggage she carries is the emotional kind.

There are a ton of biopics this fall. ‘Wild’ stands apart from the rest as a sort of autobiopic; it feels personal and intimate in a way its contemporaries, even some of the good ones, do not. Based on the real Strayed’s memoir, it burrows inward as its heroine ventures further into the great outdoors. By jumping through Strayed’s memories as they come rushing back to her—jumbled and out of order, seemingly at random—on her 2,650-mile trek, director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby have found a way to take the viewer inside Strayed’s mind, and to show the world from her perspective.

It begins deep into Cheryl’s trip, on a mountaintop in the Pacific Northwest. Wearing oversized boots, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the movie) reaches the peak of a mountain, and examines the bloody, broken mess that remains of her feet. With one of the most glorious sights a human being can ever lay eyes on spread before her, Cheryl can only focus on her bruised toes, and the dangling nails she starts to pluck off. It’s the movie in microcosm: Surrounded by the nature’s magnificence, Cheryl spends most of the PCT picking at her scabs.

At her highest and lowest point simultaneously, the movie rewinds to the beginning of her hike, and then through the life choices that took her to this point. Many of them were unwise; drugs, infidelity, and addiction among her greatest hits. Most, it seems, were sparked by the early death of Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who endured a marriage to an abusive, alcoholic husband, and then raised Cheryl and her brother on her own, all while maintaining and upbeat outlook on life despite all the hardships. When cancer cuts Bobbi down, Cheryl doesn’t know how to cope. She starts cheating on her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and picks up a nasty heroin habit. Only after she reaches rock bottom does she finally come to her senses. That’s when she decides to walk from Mexico to Canada by herself.

It is not an easy task. ‘Wild’ chronicles Cheryl’s methodical progress, and dwells over the details and mistakes a relatively inexperienced hiker makes. Cheryl packs the wrong stuff (like the incorrect fuel for her hot plate) and way too much of it; she suffers through brutal heat and cold. Alone and vulnerable, she’s forced to trust in the kindness of strangers; although she meets some generous and kind people in her travels, the threat of violence hangs over many of her encounters. It’s unclear whether she’ll be able to complete this task, and it’s also unclear whether completing it will even solve anything in her life. Once it’s over, what’s next?

Wild review
Fox Searchlight

The one constant throughout the film is Cheryl herself, played superbly and against type by Reese Witherspoon, whose typical onscreen persona is largely defined by a sort of unbendable perkiness. When Witherspoon almost landed the lead role in ‘Gone Girl,’ there was a lot of push-back from fans who claimed Witherspoon couldn’t pull off the character’s complexity or sinister side. She may well have taken this role to prove those people wrong. There’s a darkness to Cheryl that Witherspoon has rarely explored before, and perhaps that is part of what makes ‘Wild’ interesting: Just as Cheryl is testing herself with this impossible task, Witherspoon is also pushing the boundaries of what she can do as an actress. Based on the evidence here, she can do quite a lot more than she’s usually asked for.

‘Wild’ also suggests that Jean-Marc Vallée has more tricks up his sleeve than his previous resume indicated. His ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ from last year certainly delivered some fine performances—stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both landed Oscars—but it also transformed an iconoclast’s life story into a cliche-ridden tale of an unlikely underdog who swoops in and defies the odds and the establishment to triumph (at least for a time) against a corrupt, inefficient system. ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ was one of those based-on-a-true-story movies that feels like it’s mostly based on screenwriting manuals and previous biopics, but ‘Wild’ finds Vallée working, appropriately enough, with a more adventurous spirit. There are some familiar scenes and character types, along with the inspiring narrative hook of Cheryl’s hike, but there are also enough unexpected twists (and gorgeous nature photography by cinematographer Yves Bélanger) to keep the formula fresh. The destination may be expected, but the path Vallée takes to it is not.

‘Wild’ is arguably a bit too long, and its ending is somewhat anticlimactic. But maybe that’s appropriate to this story. Walking 2600 miles shouldn’t be easy, and learning to live with grief doesn’t meant finding a magical cure; it’s about getting rid of some of your baggage and learning how to live with the rest. While a lot of the year’s more “prestigious” biopics will soon fade from memory, I have a feeling ‘Wild’ will stick with the people who watch it. And in the future, when they they see a picture of the Pacific Crest Trail or Reese Witherspoon with a gigantic backpack, moments from it will come flooding back.

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