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All words: Rachel Kurzius

Wild looks and sounds a lot like Into the Wild. Both are movies based on non fiction books about young adults purposefully banishing themselves into the natural world, and of course, those titles are quite similar. But while Into the Wild’s Christopher McCandless died in his quest to live off the land, Cheryl Strayed survives to write her story about the Pacific Crest Trail. Her 100-day journey through California and Oregon is more an attempt at becoming sociable again than eschewing society altogether.

Wild begins with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) mid-hike. Her moans at first sound like we may have found her mid-coitus, too, but she’s whimpering in pain from her bloodied feet. The culprit? Hundreds of miles walking in her hiking boots. She soon finds out that the only thing worse than putting those boots back on is having one of them fly off the side of the mountain. The wilderness, as it turns out, provides lots of learning opportunities.

The audience puts together the “why” of Cheryl’s journey through a series of flashbacks. In short: her life has fallen apart since her mother (“the love of my life,” as Cheryl calls her) died four years ago and she feels guilty for destroying her marriage. When she begins the hike, these flashbacks are concretely tied to the past and present: reading an Adrienne Rich poem while hiking will lead to reading that same poem with her mother (Laura Dern), or a shot of her horse tattoo will bring us to the moment she got said tattoo. As Cheryl continues along the PCT, these flashes becoming more free-flowing.


Director Jean-Marc Vallée does an incredible job capturing the sensation of a wandering mind. Scored largely by Witherspoon muttering to herself and humming old sentimental songs, it will go from showing a whistle to blowing to something else entirely. I would call it random-association, but we become familiar enough with Cheryl’s memories to follow her on her mental journey. When Cheryl begins to gain control over her thoughts, though, the movie loses that inventive energy. By the end of the movie, the voiceover functions as a typical voiceover, and the story ties its bows a bit too neatly.

The scenery, unsurprisingly, is gorgeous. Through shot composition, cinematographer Yves Bélanger (who also worked with Vallée on Dallas Buyers Club) establishes just how close or far from civilization Cheryl feels. In some shots, her tent overpowers the landscape and she is master of the land. In others, the wilderness dwarfs her meager attempts at establishing temporary outposts.

While Nick Hornby’s screenplay changes the source material in some significant ways (largely by shedding characters), the film retains the strong literary feeling of the memoir. Books take on the role of companions. Cheryl needs to consider the weight of words quite literally, considering she carries them on her back each day. Epigraphs from book sections are written in the trail register and on screen.

Reese Witherspoon is surprisingly restrained as Cheryl, with none of the bubbly charm she often uses in roles. This choice works. If the audience were more entwined in her mind, the film might come off as didactic. As Cheryl’s saintly mother, Laura Dern evokes nostalgia for childhood memories I never had. Existing only in Cheryl’s memories, Dern is part mythic mother and part human. Supporting characters include two actors quickly becoming typecast: Thomas Sadoski is the boyfriend who always gets dumped, and Gaby Hoffman as the woman who sits with her friend as she takes a pregnancy test. Why fix it if it ain’t broke, right? In short amounts of screentime, Sadoski and Hoffman both evoke deep, credible relationships with Witherspoon’s Cheryl.

Cheryl’s body becomes a canvas of the bruises and cuts she acquires on the trail. You can sense her eventual relief from her wounds after years of grieving in a way that did not endear her to others. In its best moments, Wild culls the power of cinema to show us this hurt, and the ways that joy lurks at its borders.