Rated R. Running time: 1 hour min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 5; Sex 6/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness.
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
In the Jewish/Christian Scriptures the wilderness is a lawless scary place infested by wild beasts. Sometimes it is a place for punishment and cleansing, as in the case of the escaped Israelites who had continually rebelled against Moses and God, or, in the case of Jesus, a place of solitary testing concerning his God-given mission. There is a touch of both meanings in director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, as adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby.
The film starts out in the middle of things in the summer of 1995 with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) on a mountain slope setting aside a humongous backpack so she can take off one of her hiking boots. Her foot is bruised and bloody, her injured toenail ready to be plucked off. As she painfully does so, she hits her boot so that it tumbles down the slope. She curses, so upset that she angrily hurls her other boot after it. This is clearly a young woman with issues—and also in a pickle. She puts on her sandals and then wraps her feet in duct tape so that she can continue on with her long hike.
With the camera cutting back and forth in time and place we are slowly let in on Cheryl’s past life and why she has set forth upon her three-month journey of 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It is a trek taking her from the Mojave Desert to the mountains of Oregon. Her past life includes her closeness to her mother Bobbie (Laura Dern) and her divorce from husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) due to her cheating on him. After Bobbie dies from lung cancer, Cheryl uses heroin and sex to escape reality. Working as a waitress, she has sex with about any male customer willing to do so. Her trek into the wilderness is tied in with her decision to start her life over—as stated in the film, “Walk her way back into being the woman that her mother thought she was.”
It is obvious at the beginning that she has had no experience hiking and camping. Her equipment is new, the price tags still attached. She has to read the instructions for the stove and other gear, and she has packed far too much so that from the start to well into her trek, it is a major effort to strap the backpack on while kneeling and then a struggle to stand up. Throughout the trip we see the dark bruises that the heavy back inflicts on her back and abdomen. She also painfully learns that those first hiking boots were too small. Even when a fellow hiker at hospitality post helps her toss what she can do without, the pack lives up to what he calls “a monster.”
Cheryl keeps a journal and records in it quotes from some of the books she has brought along, works by Joni Mitchell, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James A. Michener. Accepting the advice about shedding some of her load, she tears out the pages of her hiking guides, as well as some of the literary works, using the pages as fuel for her campfires. She meets many people along the way, first a farm worker who treats her to a ride and food and lodging. At first we worry about this—it is night, she is a lone woman, and the older man looks a bit threatening, but then she learns that he has a wife who is as welcoming as he. Later, however, there is better reason for worry, one of two bow and arrow hunters doubling back to spy on her. His intentions are clear, but fortunately his companion has also turned back and calls him away.
The extensive flashbacks to her mother make this a moving mother-daughter film. At times their relationship is strained, even tense: while riding somewhere with her mother Cheryl observes, “It must be strange that I’m so much more sophisticated than you.” Which indeed is true, Bobbie being far more optimistic and buoyant. When she enrolls in college, her mother also enrolls—in the same college. Bobbie is far more thrilled by their immersion in learning than her daughter. However, college, or at least her literature classes have benefited Cheryl, judging by the works of the above named authors whose works she reads on the trail. At various hospitality posts along the way other hikers also appreciate the quotations that Cheryl reads aloud. She herself benefits from the kindness of her ex-husband who mails care packages to her along the way. Aside from the delicious snacks is a gift she especially relishes, a new pair of hiking boots.
Cheryl grows spiritually and emotionally from her trek, much in the tradition of other tales of pilgrimage. At times you might be reminded of the wonderful Martin Sheen film The Way. She learns more the value of others and to place herself “in the way of beauty.” The filmmakers make good use of the song popularized by Simon and Garfunkel “El Condor Pasa,” whose haunting melody and its concluding words, “I’d rather feel the earth beneath my feet/ Yes I would/If I only could, I surely would.”
Wild is a strong addition to the growing number of films about a woman. As played so wonderfully by Reece Witherspoon Cheryl is definitely not idealized. She has been bruised and battered by life, too often making foolish decisions. The arduous trek is not a romantic romp to enjoy the beauties of Nature, but a journey of penance. Were she in the Middle Ages, she would have been flailing her back with a whip—though, of course, that patriarchal era she would not have had the freedom to make such a trek by herself. Also, back then, she would have had a geographic destination, such as the party of pilgrims do in Chaucer’s famous account, the shrine at Canterbury. Cheryl’s destination is an inner one, that of the soul—a journey we all need to make at some point in our lives.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables.