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.
Or is it? That's the interesting thing about Wild: there's not much God, but there's a lot of religious stuff going on. Strayed is a pilgrim, setting out on a quest that requires self-sacrifice, pain, and callouses, in order to find something higher than herself. Along the way, she must (literally) rid herself of extra baggage that she has been carrying. She is contrite, repentant, even when she is angry and defiant and exhausted. She learns from wise men and fools and children alike along the way; she leaves quotations from Emily Dickinson and Flannery O'Connor in the trail books. Her whispered commentaries and questions often come across like prayers, and though she starts out lost (and gets lost a little along the way), by the end, she is at least a bit closer to being found.
What she finds isn't God—though a mysterious fox keeps finding her, so who knows. And at least on the surface, this is more the tale of redemption eeked out by hard work than anything like grace.
But Strayed's destination at the end of the Pacific Crest Trail is the “Bridge of the Gods,” which spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. When she comes upon it, it's less majestic than whatever we've been imagining for the last 1,100 miles. It's not disappointing, but it risks being underwhelming. And I don't know about you, but for me, those unexpected underwhelming places are exactly where I encounter grace I don't deserve.
Wild is sort of a story of redemption, but all the stuff she's being redeemed from may render the film too gritty for many CT readers. Flashbacks include characters using drugs including heroin, drinking to excess, and having sex, and there is nudity. There are multiple profanities (beginning from the first scene), including f-bombs. A character is pregnant and goes to “take care of it.” A character has a terminal illness and eventually dies. And there’s also some hiking-related moments of peril and wounds that may put off squeamish viewers.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She writes the Watch This Way blog and tweets @alissamarie.