In 2005, Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. In Wild, she walks a line once again. A very long line. A very, very long line. A line over a thousand miles long, to be more precise. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, the film tracks Witherspoon – as Cheryl – taking on the infamously arduous yet breathtakingly rewarding Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border of the USA. What’s she walking towards? What’s she walking away from? Why is she walking at all? We have to walk alongside her to find out.
In the opening in medias res scene, squeamish audience members were forced to turn their heads as Cheryl, bruised and battered, yanked off her bleeding big toenail. Casting her fate (and her shoes) to the wind, she beats on – determined, resolute, indomitable. Through flashbacks, we learn how Cheryl came to be so alone in her life, and how she found herself so alone in the middle of the wild. A downward spiral of infidelity and drug use on her part led to a painful divorce, but Cheryl is adamant that she can forgive herself. It’s a raw, vulnerable and exposed performance. At one point she is mistaken for a homeless drifter by a passing “Hobo Times” reporter. When she struggles to answer his questions about where she is living and what her job is, it dawns upon Cheryl – and us – that she really has nothing to lose.
As her ex-husband tells Cheryl that he is “sorry [she has] to walk a thousand miles just to…” he cannot help but trail off, unable to finish his sentence. That’s not too dissimilar from how the audience feel at times. We’re not exactly sure Cheryl knows why she has undertaken this tumultuous journey, but – through Witherspoon – we are able to accept that this is something she simply knows that she has to do. She claims at one point, her eyes clasped on the sublimity of her surroundings, “I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here”. It’s perhaps the first time that Cheryl has truly been honest with us.
This is, without a doubt, a solo adventure. The only other role of significant screen time is mastered by Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi. It’s odd that Dern, only nine years Witherspoon’s senior, is cast as her mother, but then again Cheryl and Bobbi’s relationship is a bond more like sisterhood than mother and daughter. They even enroll at college at the same time (Cheryl having to awkwardly pass her giddy mother in the school corridors). Dern, playing a single mother who escaped the clutches of an abusive husband, supplies an impenetrable optimism in her fleeting but impressionable performance. Perhaps this is where Cheryl gets her determination from. Bobbi’s death hits Cheryl hard, and one of the most sensitive scenes sees Cheryl fall to her knees in the middle of the wild, cast up her head to the skies, and tell her mother directly that she misses her.
With each step Cheryl learns something new about herself. Out in the vast open and against the grandeur of nature, she realises her own insignificance in the world, and moreover the insignificance of mankind. Cheryl finds a kindred spirit in a wandering fox (a metaphor?) and through howling with wolves in the dead of night. Transience is a prevailing theme. The only evidence of Cheryl’s journey that she leaves behind are small notes in the form of laconic phrases and epigrams – comforting words of advice to any others who may seek the same quest of self-enlightenment that she has.
Some of the best moments of the film are when it allows us to stop and admire the beauty of the natural world (a credit to Yves Bélanger’s lens flare cinematography). It should be noted, however, that it’s not a picture especially flattering to men. We are made to feel apprehensive of every single male Cheryl encounters along the way just as uneasily as she does, and often – unfortunately – they are just as predatory and threatening as she fears. Wild is a loud shout for feminism – Cheryl epitomising a strong-willed and independent woman determined to take life into her own hands – and feet.