Cheryl Strayed needed to walk alone. She chose a 1100 mile chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail to wrestle with, taking her through the Mojave Desert, California and Oregon, over the course of three months. Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild is an adaptation of her memoir centred on this experience. The strenuous physical effort, the solitude of the wilderness, the dangers of hiking solo are for Strayed (interpreted by Reese Witherspoon) a catharsis, a means of facing her demons, and her only way up.
With a plot which has little opportunity for dialogue, the script conveys Cheryl’s psychological evolution remarkably well. It’s there in the moments where she speaks or sings all to herself alone on the trail, and then conjures before the audience short, poignant flashbacks which detail her personal catastrophes.
The film’s direction is bare, its emphasis on landscapes and pain. When Strayed encounters other people on the way, they purposefully feel odd and out of place: Vallée succeeds in making her loneliness our norm. The flashbacks have a distinct and darker colour palette, contrasting with the bright, stunning backgrounds through which Witherspoon ascends. The mood is wholly different from Vallée’s last film, the talkative and flippant Dallas Buyers’ Club.
Witherspoon gives a stunning performance as Strayed, unrecognisable from the parts which made her fame in Legally Blonde or Walk the Line. Laura Dern as her mother conveys an extraordinary warmth of character despite her short screen time. Both have been nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively.
Unfortunately, Wild’s pared back approach also means that those not familiar with the memoir or Strayed’s other work will lose out on some the story’s subtleties. Too many questions in the flashbacks are left unanswered.
The film concludes with an unusual message. Rather than wallowing in regret for her failings, Strayed decides that while her mistakes were dramatic, they in the end brought her to where she is now. Perhaps it’s best to accept that pain has to be lived out, Vallée seems to suggest. And as Cheryl is in turn surprised by the kindness and cruelty of those she meets on her way, this is what her world appears to reflect too.