“I’m going to walk until I become the woman my mother wanted me to be,” is essentially the movie Wild in one line. A young woman, who spirals into drugs and promiscuity after the death of her mother, pulls it together by walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada.
This sounds like a lot of other stories we’ve heard, and performing a physical challenge in order to figure out who we are inside may seem a tad stale by now, but I found Wild engrossing and moving, and I give the credit to director Jean-Marc Vallee. Although at first I thought he was over-directing, I realize a few days later that if this thing had been told straight it would have been like watching someone’s vacation footage.
Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the film, plays Cheryl Strayed. She and a brother have been raised by a free-spirited mother (Laura Dern), and though Witherspoon at times looks down on her mother’s lack of sophistication, the two are very close.
After Dern’s death from cancer, Witherspoon becomes completely unmoored, cheating on her husband (even taking on two men in a restaurant restroom) and shooting heroin. She sees a guide book for the PCT, and though she can barely lift her pack, she sets out by walking across the Mojave Desert.
Vallee, first of all, manages to make this all interesting by use of flashback and montage. We begin with Witherspoon, somewhere in the forested mountains, peeling off a blackened toenail and then losing a boot. She throws the other one down the mountain to join it. From there we learn the rest of the story, sometimes with just shreds of film, a kaleidoscope of images that work powerfully. Vallee also makes great use of music, particularly Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa.” We hear the into to that song many times and when the whole song plays out it’s like a catharsis.
Some of the predicaments Witherspoon finds herself in seem dialed up–a farmer, whom she initially mistrusts, turns out to be kind, while a couple of creepy hunters probably aren’t. She has a fling with a hippie (she happens upon the hippie enclave of Ashland, Oregon just in time for Jerry Garcia’s death) and makes friends along the way. I knew a guy who attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail, and I learned a lot about what goes into and the camaraderie among those who do it. A scene in which she is interviewed by a reporter for “The Hobo Times” is pretty funny, as she is forced to reiterate that she is not a hobo.
What is most interesting is Witherspoon’s performance. Like any America’s Sweetheart, she has attempted to spread her creative wings beyond the Legally Blonde persona, and it hasn’t been easy for her. It’s just hard to see her as a heroin-shooting slut. I don’t think she ever quite gets there–she never stops being Reese Witherspoon to me–but I give her credit for trying.
My grade for Wild: B+.