“Wild” Could Have Been a Standard Hollywood Weeper. Here’s How Reese Witherspoon Saved It

To call “Wild” a redemption film is to minimize the wide range of emotions it works with—not to mention the subtlety of Reese Witherspoon’s performance.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

 Early in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s ex-husband, Paul, tells her, “I’m sorry you have to walk a thousand miles just to …”

“Finish that sentence,” Cheryl responds. “Why do I have to walk a thousand miles?” He doesn’t say.

In Wild, audiences see another side of Witherspoon, who appears in almost every second of the film.

Later, a few hundred miles into her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail—a path through desert and mountain wilderness stretching from Mexico to Canada—Cheryl calls her ex-husband. He doesn’t answer; she leaves a message: “I’m still alive. That’s all the news I have.” She hangs up, and walks away.

Cheryl never says exactly why she walks the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT. Her mother (“the love of my life,” she tells a therapist) has unexpectedly died and she wants to walk herself into a new life, she says vaguely. She’s using heroin and sleeping with any man who asks, behavior that leads to the end of her seven-year marriage. Around that point, Cheryl sees a guide book for hiking the PCT and the cover sticks in her mind.

She has to do something, and it’s as good a plan as any. So she gets a backpack, packs like a rookie (“Who brings 12 condoms on a solo hike?” she’ll ask later), and starts her walk from the California desert to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon.

Along the way she will lose a toenail and her boots, and run out of water; she’ll meet people who are kind and others who are less so. We’ll see her at her most vulnerable, longing for peace. One could say Cheryl is looking for redemption on the trail. This is the easy way to package Wild, and it is not wrong to leave it there. But to say that this is all there is to the film minimizes the wide range of emotions that accompany loss and pain—not to mention the subtlety of Reese Witherspoon’s performance

Wild is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Directed by Jean-Marc Valle (who made last year’s very good Dallas Buyers Club), and adapted for the screen by the novelist Nick Hornby, the film, like Witherspoon’s portrayal of Cheryl, walks a careful line between emotional complexity and melodrama.

One or two miscues and the film could have been little more than a standard Hollywood weeper about a lost person seeking redemption in the woods, on a journey that teaches the character, and by extension the audience, easily packaged lessons about how to love yourself, or some such thing. The kind of movie made explicitly to provide inspirational quotes and place them over nature photos.

Almost everyone she meets on the trail is a man.

To be honest, Wild is almost that movie. That it isn’t—that Wild is a success (and it is a great success)—is due almost entirely to Reese Witherspoon, who carries on her back not only her giant pack but also the weight of this film. Wild is uncomplicated in its story and structure; it depends chiefly on the beauty of its imagery (photographer Yves Belanger does a great job, but given the surroundings I would expect no less) and the performance of its star.

Reese Witherspoon appeared in a number of pretty good films in the 1990s (notably Alexander Payne’s Election) before she broke into the national consciousness with Legally Blonde in 2001. She has played largely outgoing, talkative characters, one of which—June Carter Cash in Walk the Line—won her the 2006 Academy Award for Best Actress.

But in Wild, audiences see another side of Witherspoon, who appears in almost every second of the film. She’s at her best, too, playing the funny, sad, strong Cheryl Strayed. The conceit of Wild pushes the actress to her limits, both physically and emotionally, and Witherspoon’s meditative, physical performance really makes Wild what it is. And the film’s dependence on Witherspoon seems appropriate. In adapting Strayed’s story for the movies, how else could you make it work but to ask Witherspoon to bear the movie on her back?

The filmmakers use the physical difficulty of Cheryl’s hike—and her lack of experience or preparation—as a lens that reflects Strayed’s life. Wild tells this story through flashbacks, triggered sometimes by moments of physical hardship, sometimes through a hand gesture. We see Strayed’s youth, her relationship with her mother, her marriage, her drug use, her promiscuous sexual escapades, her visits to therapists. All this comes in no particular order, structured, like our memories, not chronologically but emotionally.

Like Cheryl on the trail, audiences are given signposts to help us along. She starts out unable to even lift her backpack on her own, crumbling under the weight of her excess. (Side note: Movies that inspire unprepared people to head into the wilderness are dangerous and problematic in their own right. When a Yosemite Park Ranger and I discussed this fact about Wild, he said: “If you want solitude, don’t hike the PCT. Go find a trail to a gorgeous, nameless, and empty mountain valley somewhere. If you want to get fit, walk in your city park.”)

As she gets stronger, her burden gets lighter, both literally and emotionally, as she discards the things she no longer needs. Her memories become more focused. She leaves quotations in the trail books along the way that let us see expressly the thoughts that tie her past and present. They range from the famous, like Robert Frost’s “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” to the desperate, such as Strayed’s own insight that “God is a ruthless bitch.”

She also faces the physical risks that come with being a woman hiking the trail alone. Almost everyone she meets on the trail is a man, and her cautious interactions are some of the most complicated scenes in the film.

Cheryl Strayed’s story is one of a woman finding a trail and taking it to the end, alone. By the end of her walk, Strayed has had the life-saving realizations every redemption story needs, but they do not look like recovery stories we have seen before. It is still Cheryl, alone, in the woods, wondering aloud about her life.