Walk the 1,000-mile line…
While cinematic travels are nothing new, these days it’s most likely that movie explorers are carrying their destination with them. The “find yourself” journey makes nature the backdrop to the hero’s spiritual reboot. As Cheryl Strayed, the real-life hiker whose memoir Wild is based on, puts it, it’s a chance “to put myself in the way of beauty”.
Such trail therapy is as precariously positioned as Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is atop a mountain at the movie’s start; any false move will see the film tumble into the abyss of self-help cliché. Just as well, then, that our guide is director Jean-Marc Vallée who, as in Dallas Buyers Club, navigates potentially syrupy awards-bait material with a willingness to show the bruises. There’s the odd stumble, but mostly his footing is sure.
As befits a director who steered two actors to Oscar glory, his best asset is Witherspoon, returning to feisty early-career form. Cheryl embarks on her 1,000-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail not through altruism but to repair the wounds caused by the death of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), the grief of which drove her into heroin addiction and promiscuity.
This backstory (told via flashback) allows Witherspoon to bare all, literally and metaphorically. Meanwhile, in the present day, she tackles the physical rigours of the walk, trudging through desert and mountains. An Oscar nom is all but assured.
Nick Hornby’s screenplay and Vallée’s editing stitch together past and present in a complex weave, in which each of Cheryl’s reveries is sparked by the journey. The symmetries are obvious but rarely overcooked, bar the magic appearance of a fox at crucial junctures.
The flashbacks are dominated by Dern, who plays Bobbi as a paragon of naïve optimism whose sunny disposition counterbalances Cheryl. Dern plays her so brightly that Bobbi’s tragic departure is wrenching.
In the present day, inevitably, this is virtually a solo performance, although a host of cameos reminds you of Vallée’s ease in presenting a blue-collar America devoid of stereotype. While Cheryl’s encounters along the trail don’t downplay the risks of being a woman alone in the woods, villains are few.
If that makes the film curiously devoid of drama, Cheryl’s resolve provides grit. Despite the temptation to peg this as a backpacker’s Eat Pray Love, the cuisine is “cold mush”, the praying replaced by outbursts to God and love is hard-earned. Even the stunning landscapes are never milked with ornate composition; like Cheryl, we see them as they are.