Pushing forty now (she turns 39 next March), Reese Witherspoon has long since shed the girlishness she had in early, attention-getting performances in Freeway and Election. She still has the drive, though, and in Wild we don’t question whether her character, Cheryl Strayed, will see her impossible goal through. Strayed, who wrote about her adventure in an acclaimed memoir, set out in 1995 to hike the Pacific Crest Trail despite having no backpacking experience. Strayed did this in part to get out of her own suffering head, after losing her mom to cancer and wallowing in annihilating grief. The way Witherspoon plays it, the hike is almost just one more way for Cheryl, an intelligent but complexly miserable woman, to punish herself.
Wild was an Oprah-approved book, and the Oprah website offers more than twenty inspirational quotes from its pages, but the movie is rather short on bromides. There are some here and there, but mainly the film respects the intractability of despair. Whatever positive meaning Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) might have wanted Cheryl to take from it, Bobbi still died at 45 without having found her own life. Dern, though, gives us a woman who lunges at any shard of joy or freedom, and makes Bobbi’s positivity seem more tough-minded than depression or nihilism. Cheryl walks, she tells us, in hopes that she will meet in herself the woman her mother raised her to be. We may not doubt that Cheryl will finish the hike, but we’re not at all sure what kind of woman she will meet at the end of it.
Overflowing with rich but unsentimental scenery, the movie benefits from clear-eyed direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose Dallas Buyers Club last year shared Wild‘s compassion for flawed Americans and certainty that people will behave with kindness given the chance. Cheryl encounters a lot of men on her journey, not all of whom seem nice, though the first guy she runs into looks like a creep but ends up offering her a meal and a shower. (No strings attached; he’s contentedly married.) Cheryl is no prude: part of what she’s trying to escape is her period of anguished, drugged-out promiscuity. The movie doesn’t judge her for that — it simply allows that Cheryl has burned through it into a need for something purer.
Wild is the third movie to be released this year about a woman who goes solo walkabout; there was also Tracks, based on another desert-hike memoir, and the underseen Redwood Highway. Of the three, Wild has the obvious Oscar push behind it, but I prefer Redwood Highway and Shirley Knight’s lovely performance in it, as a kind of Cheryl Strayed forty years later. Still, Wild is decent enough as a bookend piece to Dallas Buyers Club, with a drifting, trippy-melancholic tone governed by Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (with its binary “I’d rather be a…than a…” construction). Cheryl keeps pursuing her mom, hallucinating her at times, but to where is Bobbi trying to guide her? We have a good idea where she wants to steer Cheryl away from, but towards what?
At the end, Cheryl tells us that later on, after the narrative ends, she will marry a man and have two kids. This is fine, if it was what Cheryl chose and wanted in actual life; but why seal the movie with reassurances that Cheryl finally got off the trail of solitude and became a mom just like her dear old (young) mom? Do we need that? Does the movie? I say we don’t and it doesn’t; it carries the unattractive implication that all an unhappy woman needs are the right man and a couple of babies. I’m sure that’s not what Witherspoon (also one of the producers) intended. Right? Or is it not reassurance at all, but a kind of warning? I’ll need to mull it over; Wild is not generally a movie that says a man, or anything else, will fix whatever ails a woman.