Redemption movies often aren’t as inspirational as they’d like to be. They are more likely chores to watch. Not so “Wild.” The immersive, moving “Wild” is among the best redemption movies. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a reckless young woman who’s reached the edge of a psychological cliff. After a troubled life that includes a failed marriage, heroin addiction and the death of her loving mother at 45, Strayed embarks upon a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.
A novice, Strayed is anything but prepared for the challenges and risks she’ll face during an epic walk from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest. The hike, through heat, cold, rain, snow, fog, isolation and the potential danger posed by wild animals and a few predatory humans she encounters along the way, isn’t just a grueling physical trial. It’s a spiritual journey.
Witherspoon’s portrayal of Strayed has earned her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for best actress. Her searching, brave work in “Wild” is even more striking than her Oscar-winning performance as June Carter Cash in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line.”
Witherspoon also co-produced “Wild,” which is based on Strayed’s best-selling 2012 memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” In addition to the actress and the author, the film’s behind-the-scenes talent features French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, an Oscar nominee for last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education,” “About a Boy”).
“Wild” runs a packed, impactful two hours. Strayed’s walk on the Pacific Crest Trail truly feels like a wilderness journey. In a remarkably intimate way, too, it’s a soul-testing and spirit-freeing adventure.
“I think I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here,” Strayed tells a fellow hiker she meets along the trail.
Vallée’s hand-held cameras and the natural light he photographs his actors in bring moviegoers close to the characters, capturing an almost cinéma vérité-style reality. It’s like walking in Strayed’s poorly chosen hiking boots.
Vallée and Hornby present Strayed’s story in nonlinear fashion. An overused technique, although Vallée and Hornby employ it unusually well. Strayed’s memories, full of grief and regrets, lyrically pass through her mind as she struggles through her Pacific Crest Trail passage.
The memories include an abusive, alcoholic father; the happier life she experiences after her happy-despite-the-odds mother leaves her husband; Strayed’s mother’s sudden illness and shocking death; and the seven-year marriage marred by Strayed’s serial infidelity.
Laura Dern, playing Strayed’s mother, Bobbi, is Witherspoon’s principal co-star. In a film that features many well-cast characters who pass quickly in and out of the story, Bobbi’s love and gentle guidance is a constant. Bobbi’s unconditional affection, even after her death, sends light into her straying daughter’s bleak existence.
“If there’s one thing I can teach,” Bobbi says, “it’s how to be your best self.”
Strayed’s autobiographical accounts of a life in shambles, of behavior many would choose not to reveal, let audiences invest themselves into a woman at the crossroads. The audience stands there, too, and comes along on a life-changing journey.
“Wild,” the film’s title and the book’s title, can allude to Strayed’s wilderness sojourn and her years of untamed, pre-trail behavior. Forgiveness of oneself, or least acceptance, can be the most difficult, and rewarding, pardon to grant.