Wild is about a long, long hike up the West coast, from the far southern border of the U.S. to within sight of Canada. And it's also about the high cost of the long walk back toward restoration.
Producer Reese Witherspoon read Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir and optioned it the next day. She also plays the author in the film. After her seven-year marriage and her life fell apart due to her own drug addictions and infidelity, Cheryl legally changed her last name to “Strayed” and left everything behind and set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo—1,100 miles of being alone with her thoughts and her memories and a companion or two along the way.
That all makes this sound like Eat Pray Love meets Into the Wild: woman goes out into nature to find herself. I sharply dislike both of those stories, but Wild is different enough that it won me over. For one, Strayed is clear-eyed about her responsibility for her life's unraveling and realistic about what the trail can do. As Witherspoon plays her, she is foul-mouthed and tender, broken and strong.
And in the hands of screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria), Wild also does some hard work as a movie. Memoir-to-movie adaptations are hard to film, because memoirs are almost always written by the author about his or her own life. That makes for a great deal of first-person narration and reflection, because a memoir is not just a straightforward recounting of events (that's an autobiography). It is a story about those events that imbues them with meaning. (A good way to think about this is the traditional evangelical form of the “testimony,” in which you do not recount every event in your life to date, but the ones that drive toward the story: once I was lost, but now I am found.)
This usually means the author explains things to the reader, and that doesn't translate so well to a scene-driven visual medium like film, especially in an age in which movie voiceovers are mostly passé.
But next to Witherspoon's raw, grungy performance, what elevates Wild above its peers is its impressionistic approach to voiceover. Strayed's thoughts come to us whispery, half-heard as Witherspoon wanders the wilderness, as if they're carried on the wind. Her personal history, as well, comes in snatches—flashbacks and half-constructed scenes that make it clear that she's suppressed them unconsciously, by choice, or because of intoxicants. That impressionism means we feel like we’re experiencing her history and her thoughts, rather than just being told what they are, and so we are more gently brought along on the journey.
The key to Strayed's recovery is not so much the trail as the memories of her mother she recovers while walking alone for months. Strayed's mother was a strong, joyful woman who advocated a life of gratefulness despite her life's hardships (including marrying Strayed's father, an abusive alcoholic). She's also the reason for Strayed's only religiously-oriented conversation in the film, after receiving the sort of news that makes you seriously doubt that any god could exist who is also good.