Reese Witherspoon shines in poignant “Wild”
A new year often reminds us of what we are not. Many times we start the year with false hopes only to end it with rumination on missed opportunity. Healthy or not, many people suffer from an idealized version of what we are to be based on what we see as others’ expectations.
We compare ourselves to neighbors and friends and judge our own merits through a forced outside perspective. Or, we live in fear of not meeting the expectations of those we hold in high regard. These feelings of inadequacy can be more than wistful pondering; they can be damaging and debilitating. “Wild” is the story of a loss and turbulence, of how the summation of a person is found in all experiences, not simply the achievements and successes.
It’s not a story of redemption so much as one of acceptance. On the surface, it’s the type of film that could easily be derided as being overly sentimental. It is not. Instead, it is willful and simple, unique and justified, powerful and well done. Film interpretation will always reflect the audience—it’s the nature of art to reveal to us ourselves. “Wild” is an example of a film that will only elicit the emotions the audience brings with them.
“Wild” is based on a memoir by American author Cheryl Strayed, detailing her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The film is unique in showing a singularly female perspective on such an endeavor, as well as remaining tightly focused on the main character, Strayed herself. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) leaves a life of self destruction and divorce in Minnesota following the death of her mother.
The damage from losing her strongest beacon of support is manifested in drug use and wanton promiscuity, culminating in an unwanted pregnancy with an unknown father. In an effort to break the spiral of grief and become the woman she “was raised to be,” Strayed spends the last of her money to buy the supplies needed to spend three months alone in the wilderness.
The film’s narrative tracks Strayed’s difficulties in the wild while interspersing the structure with flashback, revealing the motivations and complexities of a damaged woman hoping to become someone better. The film is not unlike “Into the Wild,” but while Christopher McCandless sought solitude to drive life into a corner and examine it, Cheryl Strayed sought to rearrange her decision-making and sort through the clutter of a lost sense of self.
As I mentioned, the film is unique in its strong female perspective. As the story continues, we become acutely aware of how alone Strayed is and that the biggest danger faced is not large predatory animals or harsh environments, but men under an open sky with no one else for miles.
Many of the men (and there are almost only men) Strayed encounters along the trail are helpful and friendly, but there is a constant undertone of sexual tension, a tension commented on near the end of the film. It seems that a woman can never escape the wandering male eye, even hundreds of miles from the nearest bar.
When a film is packed with this amount of depth and dejection, a certain amount of levity is needed to ease the audience through the experience. Luckily, the screenplay is by Nick Hornby, author of books like “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy.” Hornby is my favorite living author and his touch can be seen throughout the film by making the heavy subjects a little lighter.
Of course, with Hornby involved, the soundtrack to the film is topnotch as well; many scenes are tinted with the poetry of Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. Witherspoon is excellent in the role, likely reaching for an Academy Award in a year with fairly slim pickings. She has nothing but herself and a canvas of empty landscapes to react to, and shows her talent by remaining understated and tranquil throughout the film.
There are multitudes of films and books focusing on the redemptive power of nature. However, Cheryl Strayed was not redeemed by her journey. Her mistakes were not erased by the time she reached Oregon. Instead, her travels led her to accept the person she always was. Nature was the quiet force that revealed a simple truth: We are all merely the culmination of our experiences.