Orgasm-tinged breathing opens the film, as the camera sets our gaze from a mountaintop over an open valley. This devolves to a visceral scene that reminds us the importance of wearing appropriately-sized boots while hiking.
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the new briefer titled film, Wild, recounts Strayed’s 1,100 mike hike from Mexico to Canada. The attempt itself is impressive, and her success is doubly so. Admittedly, she’s not really a hiker, and even for “real hikers,” the adventure is ripe with difficulty and treacherousness.
In a tale that pits a young, attractive blonde in the middle of the wilderness with little human contact, it’s almost expected that she’ll be chased by a bear, stuck in quick sand, hunted by a nefarious, anthropomorphized wolf, and or on her path to death, but to director Jean-Marc Vellee’s credit (Dallas Buyers Club), he avoids spinning the film into hyperbole and an other addition to the genre of torture porn. Instead, Vellee coaxes earnest performances from his cast. Witherspoon is believable as Strayed, whose battles with grief and addiction compel her to break away from all that is familiar to embark on this massive trek. And Laura Dern, as Strayed’s mother Bobbi is solid as the wife who left behind her abusive husband to re-start her life with her children.
Here, Cheryl and Bobbi are one in the same. Both had promise and higher expectations for themselves, subsequently found themselves in life-damning situations – Bobbi with her husband and Cheryl with heroin addiction – and ultimately decide to change their lives. On the trail, Cheryl reads Adrienne Rich’s understanding of Marie Curie’s life and death as “denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.” The same is true for Bobbie and Cheryl, wherein Bobbie is both the source of strength for Cheryl to ultimately persevere, but it is Bobbie’s death that provides Cheryl the excuse to delve into a number of infidelities and heroin abuse.
The connection between the mother and daughter is an ever-present part of Wild, but there is nothing more overt than the film’s look at sex is seen in various in contexts. Cheryl admits a promiscuity when she confesses to cheating on her husband Paul, “a lot of times.” Her regret is palpable when she speaks about her infidelities, but she doesn’t deny her sexuality while on the trail. One couldn’t call her lascivious, but she doesn’t refuse help from flirtatious men to gain a bit of knowledge or to get her package from a ranger station after it has closed. She also has sex with a stranger in the midst of her 1,100 mile hike. I’m not condemning her actions, but it’s fascinating that her threesome or random hookups while in the bonds of marriage make her an outcast and a screw up, whereas flirtation and promiscuity on the trail offers her a new perspective on life.
This contradiction within Wild leads to a, perhaps, even larger examination of film: plot, while often an interesting device to move from A through Z, isn’t always as intriguing as moments of experience that comprise a glimpse of someone’s life. Like a well-produced biopic that pares away the overdone depictions of trite humbleness or hardships of beginnings to the ultimate descent to rock bottom before ascending to a utopic inner peace, Wild suggests that Cheryl is happiest leading the life that she has been, but can find a more acceptable catharsis within it beyond the bounds of what might be seen as “expected” or “normal.”