WILD Review: Take a Hike
I have no regrets in my life. None. While there are times I think a different decision in my past may have resulted in a better outcome, that view is 20/20, and I have always believed the decision I went with at the time was the best one I could have gone with given the knowledge I had. This is why I won’t be taking a cathartic, 1,000-mile hike anytime soon. I don’t need to. Well, there’s that … and I’m not really fond of the outdoors. Or hiking.
The story of someone who has taken a cathartic, 1,000-mile hike is told in Wild, a film based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, is a woman with a bleak past. In addition to having lost her mother (Laura Dern) to cancer at an early age and becoming estranged from her brother (Keene McRae), Cheryl developed a pair of very bad, very self-destructive habits. One was heroin use. The other was having sex with anyone who was interested, a problem that ultimately ended her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski). To come to terms with her life and her life-choices, she decides to hike over 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, with the hopes of finding herself along the way.
There are two main stories being told in Wild, from director Jean-Marc Vallée. One tells the tale of Strayed’s physical journey during the thousand-mile hike. The other tells the tale of Strayed’s emotional journey in her past. While the latter is the motivation for the former, the trick Vallée faces is to integrate the two in such a way that something spiritual occurs (or, at the least, some type of lessons are learned). Sadly, those efforts fail.
Aside from the film’s brief open, which takes place well into her hike, Vallée presents Strayed’s thousand-mile journey as the main linear narrative, marked by titles on the screen in measurements of time and/or miles. During these parts of the story, Vallée spotlights the physical struggles Strayed faces – the weight of her backpack, the extremities in weather, a shortage of water, and so on. It is all ultimately an exercise in recording diary entries, though – a “Top Moments” collection that certainly highlights the struggles of Strayed’s journey (with very little peril, actually), but a collection without any greater sense of purpose.
Vallée then integrates flashbacks of Strayed’s past throughout the film (some with fully developed scenes, others with only snippets of events, and others still with brief flashes of imagery), but he does so with a randomness that cripples the film. Sure, something going on in the hiking moment might remind Strayed of a moment from her past (there isn’t always that link, however; some of Strayed’s thoughts are as random as Vallée presents them), and of course those memories aren’t going to be linear, but the sum of them never adds up to a pre-hike portrait of Strayed. Like the hiking moments, those moments from the past are presented as a collection of things that happened over a given period of time, and nothing more.
Even Strayed’s decision to embark on the journey – that key moment in her life when past meets present – offers absolutely no greater sense of calling. It’s just another random moment in a collection of random moments.
This mishandling of both sides of Strayed’s tale exposes the film’s fatal flaw: Strayed’s backstory, while tragic, is (sadly) common. Long is the list of people who have engaged in self-destructive behavior after a personal tragedy. It is terrible what happened to Strayed, and that she pulled herself out of it (regardless of method) is deserving of praise, but Vallée never offers any sense of why Strayed’s story deserves to be told over anyone else’s … other than the fact that she walked 1,000 miles to better herself.
That takes the film full-circle to those interesting but uninspiring diary-entry scenes of Strayed’s journey. By the end, never does Valée make a connection to how Strayed’s journey healed those old wounds.
The only thing that prevents the film from devolving any further is the level of Witherspoon’s performance. She is in almost every scene, and while she rises to the physical challenges of the present-day hiking tale, it’s her moments in those flashbacks that shine. That’s saying something, considering how disjointed those scenes are.
The great challenge in adapting someone’s story for the screen is that the filmmakers might not do the story justice. Vallée did great things with Ron Woodroof’s story in Dallas Buyers Club, a film similar to this one in that it is a true story of a protagonist with a reckless past who goes on to something loftier. Unfortunately,Vallée doesn’t have that magic in him again.
I don’t know Strayed’s book, but given the fact it made it to print in the first place, and given the positive comments I’ve heard from friends, tells me there is a pretty good story there. Wild isn’t that story.