As Reese Witherspoon trudges north in Wild, the new film adaptation of Portlander Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir about hiking 1,100 miles from scorched California to soggy Oregon, it's hard not to anticipate this green tunnel—and its accompanying downpours—like a kid counting down the days till summer vacation.
Here's some good news for Oregonians: Wild gets our state right, and it does so without a single artisanal letterpress studio or gluten-free doughnut shop. It's also a rich and affecting piece of filmmaking, independent of any book.
For those who've been, uh, in the wild, Wild recounts how in 1995, a 26-year-old Strayed undertook a solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, the track that wends itself from Mexico to Canada. Her mother had died of cancer a few years earlier, her marriage had crumbled, and she was self-destructing with the help of heroin and promiscuous sex. I'll admit I read the book with reluctance, wary of its premise—shattered young woman hikes herself to redemption and self-actualization—and of the Oprah's Book Club sticker on the front cover. But despite its occasional self-seriousness, the clear-eyed prose and lack of self-pity won me over.
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée of Dallas Buyers Club, keeps this spirit intact. It opens, as the memoir does, with Strayed (Witherspoon, who optioned the book and serves as a producer) watching in horror as one of her boots tumbles down a cliff, never to be worn again. As in the book, she responds by flinging its mate into the same abyss. It's tough to question her behavior: Those too-small boots are responsible for gnarly blisters and detached toenails, which the film doesn't flinch at.
From here, Wild follows a path far more meandering than the PCT. This isn't a straightforward south-to-north journey, and Strayed's three-month hike is punctuated by flashbacks. Sometimes this means a mere glimpse of a bruised and bloodied eye, or a quick shot of a needle entering a vein. At other times, we get a more fully developed scene with Strayed's mother—a near-angelic Laura Dern—or ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Just as with real memories, moments rewind and recur and fade, occasionally knitting themselves together and at other times defying such patchwork logic. What keeps us engaged isn't fear about whether Strayed will survive, but the alchemy of physical toil and emotional turmoil, and the way past traumas and current challenges illuminate one another.
As for what happens on the trail itself, much is what you'd expect: cruel slogs across the Mojave, precarious river crossings, unfriendly collisions with low-hanging branches. Vallée, to his immense credit, doesn't traffic in nature porn. The scenery looks great, to be sure. Yet despite its beauty, the landscape tends to become background noise—just as it does when you're actually hiking and focused far more on your feet or your thirst or how you're carrying way too much stuff (there's a reason other hikers called Strayed's backpack "Monster").
What rarely becomes background noise is the wonderfully evocative score. It's the mixtape radio station in Strayed's head, dipping in and out of Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen, at times distorted in eerie ways or mixed with Witherspoon's own humming or half-singing. Other sounds, often ones related to immediate physical needs, are heightened: Water glugs loudly down a parched throat, a spoon clangs against a metal bowl, lungs gasp desperately for air. The effect is visceral, overwhelming.
Wild isn't perfect. The screenplay, by Nick Hornby, allows too many voice-over intrusions, particularly when Strayed ends her odyssey at the Bridge of the Gods. Vallée could have stood to cut a few close-ups of Witherspoon looking pensive. There's some heavy-handed symbolism surrounding a fox (with creepily human-looking eyes) that keeps appearing on the trail. But the film—in large part thanks to Witherspoon's nervy, funny and emotionally rich performance—transcends such flaws.
And the Oregon rain, of course, helps to wash some of the others away.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Wild is rated R. It opens Friday at Bridgeport, Cinema 21.