Wild—Back in the early ‘90s, Cheryl Strayed decided to take up hiking. Maybe a nice stroll around the block to start with, or a lap or two around the mall? No, Strayed figured she’d start by trudging well over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.
Strayed wasn’t the sort to do things in moderation. She grieved her mother’s death from cancer by plunging into heroin addiction and reckless sex to the point where she drove off her long-suffering husband. Then she decided to exorcise these demons by, as her mother would say, “putting herself in the way of beauty,” hiking the PCT with an enormous backpack. She found plenty of beauty, along with physical exhaustion, bleeding feet and encounters with lots of creepy guys.
Now Reese Witherspoon is playing Strayed in this movie version of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, her 2012 bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club pick about her schlep. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from an adaptation by Nick Hornby, the movie is shameless Oscar bait: Big doses of Witherspoon grunting and sweating as she struggles up the trail, intercut with flashbacks of her grunting and sweating as she has sex with guys or shoots up.
Laura Dern is touching as the departed Mom, W. Earl Brown is funny as an oddball farmer, and Evan O’Toole has a great scene as a little boy who sings to Strayed. Other than that, the supporting cast of Wild doesn’t get to make much of an impression. It’s pretty much all Reese, all the time.
Still, it’s a credible, convincing performance in a skillfully made film. Glad though I am if it was helpful to Strayed, I admit I’m skeptical of this sort of grand, self-imposed, self-cleansing gesture. Not only would I wonder about its long-term therapeutic efficacy, it’s hard to banish the sense that it’s a middle-class indulgence—Strayed came from the working-class, but her aspirations and, as the movie amusingly acknowledges, her snobberies were of a middle-class literary sort.
Having said all that, I can also understand the psychological appeal of the idea, plausible or not, of setting your spiritual house in order in one hard pilgrimage. And Wild is an absorbing dramatization of it.