With a brilliant one-hander from Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed trekking the PCT, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild makes for rehydrated but beautiful soul food.
Homeward Boundby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Stubbornly clinging to the bestseller lists since its publication in 2012, it was only a matter of time before Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail found its way onto cinema screens. And in Jean-Marc Vallée’s capable hands, Wild is a visceral experience of briefly glimpsed images and cut-crossing sensations. Despite his success at the Oscars last year, Vallée refuses to be tied down to either genre or theme, and Wild is a resolutely hermetic and personal journey worlds away from Dallas Buyers Club, Café de Flore or The Young Victoria. There’s something in its dysfunctional domesticity reminiscent of C.R.A.Z.Y, but with Reese Witherspoon at the helm of this gripping one-hander, Wild draws more comparisons with John Curran’s Tracks, which featured Mia Wasikowska as another solitude-seeking woman on an epic journey. But while Tracks leaves its ghosts largely unseen, Wild leads us on a journey into one woman’s soul – wild and untamed.
It’s the mid-90s and Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border through the states of California, Oregon and Washington all the way to Canada. She’s made it to the Sierra Nevada Mountains with her overfilled pack “Monster” and her one-size-too-small boots – give or take a toe-nail. But after the ecstasy of unshoeing, one boot tumbles into the chasm below, pushing Cheryl to her very lowest – tired, angry and in pain. However, armed with quotations from Emily Davidson, Joni Mitchell and Robert Frost, her resolve is steeled, and not even the occasional acquaintance with an attractive young man can knock her off course. She’s walking the 2,663 miles determined not to stop until she’s overcome the demons of her past – her mother Bobbi’s (Laura Dern) death to cancer which saw her spiral into heroin addiction and divorce from her husband Jonathan (Michiel Huisman), who’s still supportive, sending her trail parcels with clean clothes, fresh books and money. But walking herself back to the woman her mother thought she was, Cheryl’s worried the United States’ west coast might just not be long enough.
Much like Sean Penn’s Into The Wild or Emilio Estevez’s The Way, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild is a journey of self rediscovery – a journey back to health and happiness via the therapy of walking. And with its glorious crepuscular landscapes and sensory flashbacks, Wild is the most colourful session you might ever sit in on. It’s anchored primarily in Cheryl’s attempts to turn her life around – to stop the endless cycle of bad decisions since her mother’s death that saw her cheating on her husband (repeatedly), jobbing as a waitress, aborting an unwanted child and dabbling in heroin. Stimulated by nature, and a talismanic red fox that leads her towards her goal, she’s brought back to life by scent and sunlight. Putting herself in the way of beauty, nature proves to be a revitalising tonic, an antidote against the urban grime of Minneapolis. And while Jean-Marc Vallée’s point is perhaps laboured, it’s the wild of course that leads the wild girl out of the wilderness of grief.
Punishing herself with her monstrous pack, the solitude of the seemingly endless path and repeated meals of grey mush, Cheryl’s hike is also couched in a feminist drive, propelling herself forward with hope for the woman she wants to be. As well as keeping herself sane with rest stops to enjoy some decent food (Snapple! Chips!), chat with fellow travellers and pick up trail parcels (New boots! Money! Clean clothes! Books!) Her journey becomes a personal symbol of female strength, alchemising her wounds into a very female power. Once a man-eater, she’s in a place beyond sex – bonding only with other female walkers and evaluating every male that crosses her path with suspicion – father-figure, possible love-interest, threat. It’s a gripping performance from Reese Witherspoon as the mercurial Cheryl – at once frustrated ingénue and sultry rampager in flashback. And her long journey is punctuated with great humour, as the novice walker goes from one rookie mistake to the next, and some beautifully tender moments – breaking down when a boy sings Red River Valley for her. It’s a formidable single-hander, and that’s just as well, with all the other roles sadly underwritten; even Laura Dern as Bobbi seems strangely out of context – a one-dimensional bubble of optimism waiting to burst.
A sensual pleasure and thought-provoking to boot, Wild is a self-help hero’s quest – quietly conservative as Cheryl’s personality makeover leads her back to conventional morality, but nevertheless a profoundly enjoyable experience. And while the rapid cutting can occasionally render Jean Marc-Vallée’s story repetitive (or lacking substance), there’s an undeniable elegance to Wild. Its experiential texture might leave us on the surface of Cheryl’s psychological anguish, but as she single-handedly negotiates rattlesnakes and undersized walking boots, her fear and physical pain are all too palpable. Terrified of completing her journey and not yet ready to start living, Cheryl is more than just a mixed-up girl strengthening her nerve. And Wild is couched in a literariness that sees her burgeoning career as a writer unfurl; her therapy a double one – not only walking the PCT but also writing the journal that would years later become her best-selling work.
Wild is released on 16th January 2015 in the UK