Sometimes I walk into a theater not knowing what to expect out of a movie. Wild was much a mystery to me, knowing its general synopsis — a woman embarks on an 1,100-mile hike to recover from a recent tremendous tragedy — without any background of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or Cheryl Strayed’s story. Afterward, some people told me the best-selling book was a bit slow, which I imagine is somewhat normal for a memoir about hiking to rediscover yourself. Then, I was there to tell them the film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee and more importantly written by Strayed and Nick Hornby, was as far from slow-moving as you’ll find. Wild, in fact, rewrites the textbook on adapting memoirs for the big screen.
So Reese Witherspoon is Wild‘s star. Nobody could’ve played Cheryl as well as she did and that might surprise you, but the very fact that it does is why she is perfect for the role; after all, Cheryl shocked many doing what she did. The same natural charm that brought Witherspoon success as June Carter in Walk the Line is working the same way here. Although Cheryl interacts with many people along the way, the writers’ challenge is drawing out her personality during an introspective journey. By pulling her witty, sometimes sassy, reactionary thoughts to the back story woven throughout the film, into the narrative, Hornby and Strayed find the strength and honesty in a truly likable character.
What surprised me was how funny the film is at times — watching Witherspoon try to stand up with her overweight pack, then later someone helping her clean it up by trashing among other things a large box of condoms. She also meets quite a few colorful hikers, like Naked Greg and then the three college buddies who dub her Queen of the PCT. These lighter weight sequences separate Wild from a competitively similar movie like Tracks, which exudes a more tranquil feeling.
Then there’s the opening scene in Wild, which is as outstanding individually as anything else. The movie opens with Witherspoon on a mountain peak, dirty and emotional. She takes off her shoe, a symbolic piece of this movie, and starts to peel off a toe nail. The shoe slips off the cliff. Witherspoon screams at it. Right then, you feel all the depth of her emotion come pouring out after a damn shoe and the movie has barely even started yet. While the rest of the film doesn’t show her journey to be much about the agony that leads to peeling off toe nails, this scene is supremely powerful so as I will never forget it.
Wild is just so impressively filled with stuff. The movie passes seamlessly by in a memorable flash that’s not normally associated with a film of nearly two hours. It makes you feel full — satisfied, thinking all of its content was meaningful. At the end, Witherspoon finally walks upon the Bridge of the Gods and sends us home with a beautiful epilogue. It’s all there.