Movie Review: Wild (2014)
How do you make a movie about a woman hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself? There’s only one person on stage. Where’s the drama?
The drama is in 1) who she meets, and 2) what she carries. And with the latter, I’m not talking tents and food and water; I’m talking memories. I’m talking about why Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is hiking the PCT in the first place.
“Wild,” based upon the 2012 memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” is a much better movie than I thought it would be. It’s a wholly American movie. It encompasses the width of our land, from Arizona to Washington state, and the breadth of our land in the music we hear. We start out with shivers of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa,” and end it with “Homeward Bound,” and in between we get touches of spooky Elvis (“Don’t Be Cruel”) and Lucinda Williams, and it’s all crowned by an odd, small boy in a rainy Oregon forest singing the All-American song of love and loss, “Red River Valley”:
From this valley they say you are going
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while
And who’s responsible for this All-American movie? Well, the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”), a Brit, and it was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), a French Canadian.
Of course. Bien sur.
Above your nerve
When Laura Dern first showed up in a flashback as Bobbi, the mother of Cheryl, I whispered to Patricia, “No wonder’s Cheryl’s so screwed up.” But it’s the opposite. This is a new kind of role for Dern. Bobbi is the spiritual center of the movie. She’s what Cheryl hopes to return to.
Why is Cheryl so screwed up? We get flashbacks of the life she’s running from: sex, drugs and a little rock ‘n’ roll—the All-American dream and the All-American mess. She’s a Minnesota girl who became a Portland heroin junkie. But how did that happen? And how did she climb out of it?
Early on, we get a sense that it’s not contemporary. In the flashbacks, Cheryl talks with her mom about Erica Jong and zipless fucks, and why James Michener isn’t a great writer, and those are ’70s or ’80s conversations. Later, we figure out she’s on the trail in the early to mid-’90s. When she hears Jerry Garcia dies.
In my own experience, and that’s just day hiking, the first steps of the hike are often the hardest, and so it seems here. Cheryl so overpacked she can barely stand up. I assumed she would begin to discard things, like Katz in Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” but she forces herself upright, and out the door, and ponders the hitchhike options. Then it’s to the trailhead and its logbook, where for the first time she writes down an inspirational literary quote and cheekily adds herself to the attribution: “‘If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.’ —Emily Dickinson (and Cheryl Strayed).” She keeps doing this with other authors throughout the PCT. It’s a bit precious but kinda fun, too. It's also how she gets known to the other hikers. That, and being a woman hiking alone. Which leads to its own problems.
For all the overpacking, she neglected the proper stove fuel, so she eats her mush cold. By Day 8 she’s starving and veers off the trail and finds a nighttime farmer. Much of the drama (per 1, above) is drama typical to meeting strangers: Can I trust this person? It’s exacerbated, certainly, by Cheryl being a woman alone, but man or woman it’s the reason most of us don’t do what she’s doing. It’s less the rattlesnakes crawling on the ground than the rattlesnakes walking on two legs. She’ll meet a few of those. One in particular.
Frank, the nighttime farmer, is big and blunt (“What kind of woman are you?” he asks), and he takes a nip of liquor, but we don’t really fear him, do we? Partly because he’s played by W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood”), but more because he finishes his nighttime plowing before attending to her needs. He’s the first of her stranger-philosophers, and maybe the best. She regrets decisions she’s made, he talks about his own, she asks if he would change them if he could. But to him, he didn’t have a choice. “Never been a time in my life when there’s been a fork in my road,” he says. In a sense, his lack of choice frees him from the regrets of the past.
Compare this with Cheryl's line about her mother's philosophy:
There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.
Is it better to have a choice or no choice? Both are freeing in their own way. In the end, in an Oregon rainforest, Cheryl splits the difference between the two:
What if I could forgive myself? What if I was sorry? But if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if all those things I did are the things that got me here?
Choice is maintained, regret nullified. I had similar thoughts when I was 27. And I wasn't in an Oregon rainforest at the time.
As Cheryl hikes the trail, meets the people she meets, and overcomes what she has to overcome, she goes deeper into her backstory, which is mostly the story of her mother. Bobbi got fucked over by life and responded with a positive attitude. Then life rewarded her with terminal cancer. That was the event that sent Cheryl spiraling down.
“Wild” isnt' exactly deep but it's never uninteresting. Admittedly, this is the kind of story that’s easier to do in a book, which is a more thoughtful medium, but Hornby and Vallée manage it. The story just flows. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded less happening. I wouldn’t have minded more alone time with Cheryl—that dizzying, buzzing sense of solitude in the wilderness.