Reese Witherspoon on a long walk into a new life.


Reese Witherspoon

Wild is a feminist quest story, based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling 2012 memoir, about a woman who flees the wreckage of her life to find her true self on an 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Reese Witherspoon acquired film rights to the book while it was in manuscript form, and she plays Strayed—grimy and bruised and sometimes bloody on her trek through the Mojave Desert and up into the frigid crags of the Pacific Northwest—without a shred of protective movie-star vanity. The story is rooted in a female sensibility, and it's intent on uplift, but it has a broader resonance. The men who pass through the narrative are generally well-intentioned, but some are crudely threatening, and the picture is most forceful in conveying the extent to which women's lives are shaped by the potential menace of every male stranger.

The movie begins in 1995, with Cheryl already underway, trudging through the Mojave flatlands with a backpack so heavy she can barely stand upright beneath its weight. She knows nothing about long-distance hiking, and soon begins learning difficult lessons. The boots she's bought are too tight, and are tearing up her feet. The fuel she has brought along for her camping stove is the wrong kind, which limits her diet to cold, uncooked oatmeal. Hiking enthusiasts will relate to this sort of thing, I suppose. You know who you are.

More gripping is Cheryl's backstory, which screenwriter Nick Hornby sketches in with constant flashbacks: the abusive alcoholic father, the indomitable mom (Laura Dern in a performance of glowing delicacy), the teen marriage that collapses amid Cheryl's squalid infidelities and dead-end heroin addiction. "I don't know when I became such a piece of shit," she tells a hometown friend. Then, I'm afraid, she spots a book in a store about the Pacific Crest Trail, buys it, and announces, "I'm gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother saw once."

No doubt this self-realization wake-up call is true to the experience of the real Cheryl Strayed, but in a movie it feels like inspirational overreach. Cheryl's arduous journey is presented as an exercise in character-building. She could call it off at any time (although not to throw in her lot with some gypsy Deadheads she encounters, one can't help hoping). But she's determined to stay the course, to hike her way into a new life. As a fellow female seeker she meets puts it, "I just need to find something in myself."

Well, okay. But the real value of Cheryl's trip seems to be the opportunity it offers for solitary reflection—for looking back at the mistakes she's made and determining not to keep making them. However many references we get to Erica Jong and Adrienne Rich, this is not a process that's peculiar to women—although some of the comments Cheryl endures along the way certainly are. ("You sound like a feminist," one man says. "I love feminists!").

Reese Witherspoon is in just about every scene of this film, often alone, and her unebbing commitment lifts the story above its therapeutic underpinnings. The philosophical observation with which the movie concludes is entirely familiar, and the projection of Cheryl's unseen future is simply tacked on at the end. But the director, Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), captures some gorgeous high-country scenery, and draws subtle performances from the supporting actors (especially Thomas Sadoski as Cheryl's sorrowful ex-husband). Witherspoon does all the rest.