By 1995, a spirited, restless, troubled woman named Cheryl Strayed had lost her mother to cancer, suffered a painful divorce through her own infidelities, and been addicted to heroin and unfulfilling sex. Reeling from grief and self-esteem shot through with holes, she prescribed her own therapy. She hiked solo, and woefully unprepared, at that, the Pacific Crest Trail, all 1100 miles of it, while stuffed into too-small boots and carrying an overstuffed backpack, and a ton of emotional wounds. The three-month trip from the Mojave to the Oregon-Washington border was a bear but it also marked her spiritual and emotional rebirth.
In Wild, well adapted by Nick Hornby from Strayed’s raw, penetrating bestselling 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), Reese Witherspoon, who produced the movie, grabs the role between her teeth as if her life and career depended upon it. She makes few concessions to likability and gives an engaging, screen-grabbing star performance. As the movie charts her battles with grueling weather, dehydration, exhaustion, and near gang-rape, we’re also given layer-peeling flashbacks involving the heroine’s abused mother, wonderfully and warmly played by Laura Dern, and her ex-husband who struggles to find a way to help her (Thomas Sadoski, also excellent).
Strayed’s journey, and the book it inspired, were no Eat, Pray, Love-style rich dilettante’s self-indulgence. And, happily, Wild is scrappy, impressive movie with trippy visuals, a respect for the transformative power of nature, a powerful strong central performance and a deep well of pain. ***