“You can quit any time.” The words, spoken by a friend, echo through the mind of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) more than once during her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She remembers them when she’s exhausted or sore or hungry or frightened, which is most of the time at first. But the truth is, Cheryl knows she can’t quit: She has slipped so far from where she wants to be in her life, she has to do something drastic to walk her way back into it.
Based on the bestselling memoir by the real-life Strayed, Wild may sound like a film about redemption, but it’s more about learning to live with what you can’t control — and accepting what you can control, which is sometimes just as difficult.
It’s a perceptive and tactile film full of dirt and bruises and lost toenails, each one a physical manifestation of moments Cheryl would rather forget but can’t. It’s about carrying burdens that feel too heavy but in the end aren’t, illustrated by Cheryl’s gigantic backpack, nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers because of its ridiculous size. Cheryl shouldn’t be able to lift it — in fact, she squirms and grunts and swears getting it on her back. But a sweet moment comes when she’s comfortable enough to shed some of the weight she’s been bearing, literally and figuratively.
The heart of Wild, though, as framed by director Jean-Marc Vallée, is the moving love story between a mother and daughter, which makes this film about loss and recovery personal and universal in all the best ways. Vallée, who directed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, is the perfect choice for this material, and he hews closely to Strayed’s work, right down to its opening scene, in which a dirty, weary Cheryl accidentally knocks her hiking boot down the side of a mountain. Miles from anywhere she might replace it, she howls and hurls its mate. The moment isn’t about the boot (though hiking in duct-taped sandals is not something you ever want to try if you can help it). It’s a guttural cry of rage, frustration and pain at all the stupid, agonizing things we can’t change.
Wild is built on such moments and other, quieter ones as well. Screenwriter Nick Hornby (author of such novels as High Fidelity and About a Boy) resists the impulse to pad the story with unnecessary action or overly dramatic developments.
Vallée effectively uses quick cuts and longer flashbacks to show the events that led Cheryl to undertake her ambitious hike, a decision that pays off handsomely in terms of pacing. The memories flood back as Cheryl plods through the breathtaking landscapes — most of the film was shot in Oregon — because the filmmakers, who were aided on set by Strayed, understand that wilderness offers you time and space to think, breathe and remember. There’s a singular joy to walking alone in a place with no people or buildings or cellphones or other distractions, and Wild gets right to the heart of it. If you have never experienced the feeling, this film suggests, maybe you should get off your sofa, turn off your TV and seek it.
In the end, of course, the film depends on Witherspoon, who’s in practically every scene. Stripped of her usual weapon — a pert, irresistible demeanor — Witherspoon pares herself down to deliver the best, most honest performance of her career. She makes scenes with the terrific Laura Dern, who plays her mother and is nowhere near old enough for the role, believable and heartbreaking. Her Cheryl is stubborn and smart, foolish and brave, the sort of woman who makes mistakes and suffers regrets but knows how to put one foot in front of the other, moving toward something that can only be called freedom.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 115 minutes. Sexual content, nudity, drug use, language. Playing at: area theaters.