“Wild” is based on Cheryl Strayed’s passionately funny-sad, Oprah-approved, bestselling 2012 memoir, but it doesn’t come across as a “safe” project. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, may be bucking for another Oscar – and just to make sure we know it, she doesn’t wear any makeup – but, as Hollywood movies go, it’s fairly uncompromising.
The movie, like the book, employs a back-and-forth flashback structure to depict Strayed’s 1,100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State, which she undertook in the summer of 1995 when she was 26 and despairing from the death of her mother (well played by Laura Dern) and a broken marriage. (Strayed legally changed her surname from Nyland in 1995.) The hike began impulsively, as a way to break off bouts of sex and heroin addiction, and turned into a grueling soul-searching lasting more than three months.
Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), directing from a script by Nick Hornby, begins the movie right in the middle of the hike, with Strayed agonizing over a bloody toe in a too-tight boot. Her backpack, nicknamed “the Monster,” is almost as big as she is. In visual terms, Vallée is constantly pitting the diminutive Strayed against the broad expanse of the wilderness.
Danger is ever-present, not only from wild animals and rattlesnakes and parched landscapes and freak snowstorms, but also from the many men she encounters on the trail. (And the hikers are almost all men.) The sense of a single woman as prey has rarely been so chillingly conveyed in a movie (at least in a movie that wasn’t intended as a thriller).
Witherspoon uses her own undoubted discomfort with the physical demands of the role to make us feel Strayed’s predicament in our bones. (At one point our heroine slogs 20 miles to a water tank only to discover it’s empty.) The film is another in a series of memoiristic recent movies – along with “Into the Wild,” “All is Lost,” and “127 Hours” – about how confronting the wilderness outside compels a showdown with the wilderness within. What makes this one different is that Strayed doesn’t abide by the strong-and-silent ethic governing those films. The strongest emotion in the movie, her main motivating force, is the deep love she still holds for her mother.
Too much of “Wild” is broken up by flashbacks that tend to dissipate rather than enhance Strayed’s trek. At times she is swallowed up almost to the point of vanishing by the immensity of the vistas. The various encounters she has along the way with hikers, both platonic and predatory, have a schematic feel, as if we were proceeding chapter by chapter through her journey.
I’m also not quite sure I buy the spiritual uplift Strayed derives from the hike’s completion. It could just be that she is naturally high from being royally pooped. But Witherspoon accomplishes a very difficult feat: Often wordlessly, she makes us understand how Strayed could be less lonely in the wild than in a city full of people. Grade: B (Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language.)