Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is at her breaking point when the film opens. She’s having issues with everything from her feet to her backpack, and is not pleased that she has committed herself to a 1,100 mile walk along the Pacific Crest Trail. Through a series of flashbacks it becomes clear why Cheryl is out in the wilderness. She has made some very bad choices in her personal life, and recently suffered a tragedy in her family.
Following last year’s critical acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée presents a unique version of the solo traveler motif. In many of these stories the main character is often coping with their own isolation. Vallée instead spends time focusing on Cheryl’s encounters with other travellers as well as the good and bad parts of her life prior to hitting the trail.
Encapsulating the essences of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Nick Hornby’s screenplay does a good job of providing even the most miniscule details associated with hiking. A perfect example of this is way Cheryl’s pack digs so deep into her skin that it causes red bruising on her shoulders and waist. Hornby’s script is nicely accentuated by the work of cinematographer Yves Belanger who provides the film with a rich tonal palette. Belanger captures the vastness of the land with unforgettable beauty. He brings an almost tactile intensity to both the debilitating heat and the frigid snow in the mountains.
Though these elements bring a nice texture to the film, it is Reese Witherspoon’s exceptional performance that gives the film its true weight. She embraces every aspect of the adventure and skillfully conveys the emotional and physical struggle that Cheryl endures. Whether it is the physical nature of the hike, the grittiness of going days upon days without running water, or tackling the unexpected challenges along the way, Witherspoon brings an authenticity to the performance that is mesmerizing.
Wild is a captivating story about a person who, while at a very low point in her life, sets an incredible goal and attempts to see it through to the end. Cheryl had many opportunities to quit, and with good reason, but she pushed on. Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon do a sensational job of getting to the core of both Cheryl Strayed and the journey she goes on. Similar to the scene involving a sage veteran removing unnecessary items from Cheryl’s pack, Wild effectively conveys the importance of stripping away the excess and finding one’s true self.