Ten years ago, author Cheryl Strayed embarked on one of those journeys of self-discovery Hollywood, and Oprah, love so much by hiking, alone, all 1000+ miles of the Pacific Coast Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. She recorded her experiences in her best-selling Oprah’s Book Club official selection “Wild.” The big screen adaptation is generating a lot of Oscar buzz around Reese Witherspoon’s committed performance as Strayed. But beware the hype, for the film, as directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and written by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy”) leaves a lot to be desired.
“Wild” starts right in the middle of Cheryl’s journey, as she stops to care for her cracked, bloodied toenails on a mountain top and ends up losing one boot and throwing the other down the cliff while screaming in frustration and anger. The movie then jumps back to the beginning, as Cheryl checks into a motel and prepares for her long journey by packing an oversized backpack. You can tell she has never hiked before and is totally unprepared.
Slowly but surely she makes her way north, subsisting at first on nothing but oatmeal and dry fruit, and hitchhiking occasionally. She is aware that asking for a ride from a male stranger is not exactly a good idea. And yet, the people she encounters along the way are kind and generous. That bloody toenail, a suspicious-looking hunter and a rattlesnake are the only potential dangers she encounters. Then there’s that fox that follows her around; Hornby and Vallée seem to suggest that it is some sort of spiritual manifestation but never quite develop the idea. The fox just could very well be looking for its next meal.
Right from the start, Hornby and Vallée sprinkle Cheryl’s present-day adventure with flashbacks. They offer a glimpse to her apparently happy childhood with mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who raised her and brother Leif on her own after escaping from an abusive husband and father. We see Cheryl’s contempt as her mother gleefully defends the literary merits of James Michener and her embarrassment as she deliberately looks the other way when running into her mother on campus as Bobbi belatedly finishes her bachelor’s degree. Bobbi’s death of cancer pushes Cheryl over the edge into a life of extramarital sex and heroin addiction. It turns out that the hike is Cheryl’s self-prescribed detox, a way to pull out of the darkness and into the light.
One cannot question Witherspoon’s determination in bringing Cheryl’s story to the big screen. It’s a role that demands a lot physically and emotionally and Witherspoon delivers the goods. She gives equal weight to Cheryl’s character strengths and weaknesses, portraying her as brave, selfish and unsympathetic. But, unfortunately, the movie lets her down by using such techniques as the aforementioned flashbacks and a voiceover to clue us in on her feelings, doubts and motives. They impose a barrier between Cheryl and us that we are never able to climb, keeping us at a distance. They call attention to the mechanics of how the story is being told.
At one point, Cheryl claims to be walking herself back to “the woman my mother thought I was,” but we truly never get a sense of who Cheryl was prior to this journey. Hornby’s script fails to connect the dots: was Bobbi’s death so truly traumatic that it would drive Cheryl to self-destruct? Her decision to embark on this hike is rightfully portrayed as an impulsive one. And yet, I was not convinced by the end results. Was it transcendental for Cheryl? Undoubtedly. Did her epiphany translate well to the big screen? Not really, especially when you compare it to a somewhat similar film, Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours.”
Boyle transformed Arol Ralston’s experience of being trapped in a canyon precipice, his arm pinned down by an 800-pound boulder, into an exhilarating, horrifying, inspiring tale of survival. It featured as many internal monologues (some delivered to a mini video camera Ralston turned on to record what he thought would be his final thoughts) and flashbacks as “Wild.” And yet, we feel that Ralston learned something from his experience. Cheryl Strayed may have finished her journey but in the end, we never get any sense of the lessons learned and what kind of woman will she be moving forward. In the end we ask ourselves, what was the point of this journey?