Here is Cheryl Strayed's plan as she sets out to walk the 2,600 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail over the course of three months: "I'm going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was. I'm going to put myself in the way of beauty."
Wild hits its mark by keeping things simple. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) structures the story around the specifics of Cheryl's adventures on the trail—the places she goes and the people she meets. The raw beauty of the landscape is a constant presence. We don't have to be told that nature is helping to heal Cheryl, because we feel it ourselves in every frame.
And wow, does Cheryl need some healing. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that she is just coming off of a painful divorce caused by her serial infidelities and spiraling drug use. It's clear to everyone (but maybe not Cheryl) that her addictions to sex and heroin are knotted up with her unresolved grief over the traumatic death of her mother (Laura Dern). Additional flashbacks reveal that Cheryl's dad abused her and her mom.
Vallée does an interesting thing with these flashbacks. Cheryl's memories—some of them long suppressed, we suspect—are pinned to recurring images or phrases: dad's drunken threats, or a cancer-ward X-ray machine. On the trail, fatigue and desperation bring these painful memories out into the sunlight. Aside from some well-placed incidental music, Vallée eschews scoring entirely. We're alone with Cheryl and her thoughts.
The flashbacks are crafted to evoke the way memory actually works, though they can get a little confusing. The exact chronology of Cheryl's backstory is never quite clear. This may be intentional—a way to immerse us in her interior delirium—but it can be distracting.
Still, Wild is a beautiful film that aches with authenticity and hard-won wisdom. It's pretty hard to achieve this in a mainstream Hollywood picture, especially with a high-profile star like Witherspoon. But Vallée pulls it off by largely dispensing with the typical trappings of the middle-class pilgrimage movie, paring it down to its bones.
Credit also goes to Witherspoon, who optioned the book and produced the film, and who gives a subtle, insightful performance. She maps some especially tricky emotional territory toward the end, concerning Cheryl's newfound perspective on her self-destructive habits. "What if all these terrible things I did were the things that got me here? What if I forgive myself?" Amazing, sometimes, what a good walk can do.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Far from haven"