Based on a true story, Wild features Witherspoon like you’ve never seen her (especially if you’ve seen Election recently). She’s broken, vulnerable, and utterly real.
It’s not enough that the story is good — Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a divorced heroin junkie who attempts to hike the treacherous Pacific Crest Trail (over 1000 miles total) to heal herself emotionally and physically. The story is also brilliantly told.
We watch her journey in the “present” filtered with constant flashbacks that range everywhere from her childhood to how quickly her life fell apart as an adult. This is a great example of how to use the benefits of a “mosaic” style of filmmaking while also keeping a level of coherence.
It’s easy to follow along, but more importantly, it’s effortless to care about Cheryl Strayed. And that’s where Witherspoon shines: maintaining the line between realism and likability.
Every step of her journey feels like one the audience is taking. Every blister, cut, scrape, and sigh of desperation is felt, in no small part thanks to a dedicated script written by Nick Hornby, coupled with Witherspoon’s commitment to her own trauma.
One scene in particular places Cheryl in her room before she’s taken a single step. Her struggle to even get her oversized gear on her back is just one indication that the running time of Wild won’t be easy for anyone involved with this film, mainly Cheryl herself.
It’s still a self-help story that leaves much of the grittier aspects of Cheryl’s transformation to the imagination (this is a Hornby script, after all). And there are just a few too many flashbacks that over-explain Cheryl’s backstory to a degree, especially when some of the final scenes could have received a little more love without stuffing the script.
Cheryl Strayed’s story of redemption is certainly a mark above other nature-centric journeys, including the more popular (and unremarkable) offerings that include Eat, Pray, Love and Into the Wild, which are also based on books.
The soundtrack is also an uplifting accessory to Cheryl’s long trek through the wilderness, combining a sense of freedom that comes with putting everything you have into a singular goal, as well as the dread that comes from that same action. “The Air That I Breathe” captures this tone in surprising ways for a throwback.
Though we never see firsthand why and how Cheryl chose this adventure has the core of her redemption, the script wisely lets us focus more on who Cheryl is at this point, setting up a journey that is as affecting as it is dreary.