This incredible journey travels within. REESE WITHERSPOON bares her soul in WILD, a cathartic and introspective true story.
Chery Strayed sets out to travel the Pacific Crest Trail – a 1,200 mile long trek through the wilderness. She strays because her life unraveled after the tragic loss of her mother. WILD is a fractured tale of a fractured soul.
The story is told in an unconventional non-linear way as we jump into Cheryl’s memories along the journey. Director Jean-Marc Vallee (THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) boldly slams us around, swerving and crashing into haunted memories of the past.
Before the trail, Cheryl struggled greatly with the death of her optimistic young mother (LAURA DERN), turning to drugs and sex to numb the tremendous pain. As she hikes across the country-side she remembers growing up and the precious life lessons her mother instilled.
These beautiful moments are tainted by the memories of her dying mom and her damaging self-destructive behaviour. Vallee balances the good with the bad of the past with the challenging adventure of the present.
The movie grabs our attention right away, as Cheryl deals with a wound in the opening scene. She’s already on the trail, part way through her quest. She’s in agony. She removes her boots, and looks to her mangled feet. Her big toe is gnarly. She removes the toe nail in a teeth-clenching moment.
This visceral reaction parallels the internal pain and the internal wounds Cheryl tries to heal.
Her boot falls down the mountain, by accident. She boils with frustration. She screams out into the canyon. Surrounded by nothing but her tortured emotions and scarring memories. She breaches the sounds of Nature with sheer agony.
Reese is so good right at the tip-off. It’s like Cheryl is screaming out at her mother for abandoning her. This startling sequence begins the movie with immediacy. Did we just witness a visual metaphor: the fuel for her fire? The titlecard of WILD then flickers on with the flames of her campfire and our story begins.
WILD is a character study worth examining closely. No one is ready to lose a parent. It’s not fair. It’s life. Cheryl gets lost in the process. But her mother still guides her. She somehow climbs from the darkest deepest downward spiral, deciding to reclaim her life by challenging herself with the Trail. Her mother loved nature and animals, by travelling the Trail Cheryl hopes to finally deal with her loss without any destructive distractions and find herself in the process.
Vallee incorporates another effective story-telling technique with Cheryl’s journal. Combined with the nuanced voice-over moments, the journal allows us to step inside Cheryl. This method was never melodramatic or over-the-top. Actually, I enjoyed the brief scatalogical bursts of thoughts as she journeyed. We’d hear what motivates her, and what haunts her.
Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect in WILD. She beautifully arcs across a range of emotions. Her memories are like a mystery to us. We want to know why she’s hiking across the country. We get our answers with glimpses into the past. When we travel back we witness Cheryl’s transformation. We see the difference because of Witherspoon. Plain and simple. She, in effect, is portraying several different characters along her life’s journey.
It’s heart-breaking to watch her spiral down into drug addiction. It’s sad to see her have sex with random men. She lives moment to moment, putting a new band-aid on each time. But the wounds never heal.
She dangerously continues these illicit encounters. She’s loosing herself with each sexual partner. Witherspoon literally bares all, to bare all.
We truly get a sense of how surreal these moments are for Cheryl. The style of these sex scenes is not erotic, it’s scary. We have come to care for her, so during these flashbacks we feel the pain. We almost feel like how her Mother would feel, watching her daughter lose herself. We see her sexualized by these men in alleys or hotel rooms.
Thankfully this is juxtaposed beautifully during the present day when Cheryl is in the same situation except her partner notices her soul.
Cheryl’s body is battered by her backpack. Bruises form along her lower back, and stomach. Does she feel like she deserves the pain? Are these scars proof of her evolution? I like the juxtaposition. He sees Cheryl disheveled from the long trek, but somehow sees who she really is.
These other men of the past, just saw her curves, objectifying her as a roll between the sheets. Now with her encounter in town with the Music Man, she knows it’s possible to be loved again, or share love with another. She’s changing.
She’s witnessed it before, as she examined herself out of the shower. Her body is physically changing, from the wear and tear of the travel. But now she’s beginning to feel the internal change as she begins to forgive and accept her situation. It’s poetic when she looks to her reflection and sees the wounds. I see a parallel with her internal landscape. She can’t see her pain.
I wonder if she also reflects on human fragility. She is this body, that can get injured or infected by disease (like her mother’s cancer). She can’t help but remember how precious life is, and perhaps wonder if there’s something more.
I’m not going to retread each step of her adventure. I’m going to focus on emotion. WILD connected to me on many levels. Like the fox that appeared to Cheryl, if you look for answers you may find them. The fox could symbolize her mother, or Cheryl’s grief, or even our own mortality as animals on planet Earth. The important thing is there isn’t a right answer. We all interpret life.
WILD follows Cheryl as tries to interpret the meaning of life. Without Witherspoon’s interpretation this movie would not be as powerful and pure as it is with her.
Reese Witherspoon is tender, reflective, destructive, shattered, destroyed, lost, found, and mended. She travails a mountainous range of emotions beautifully in WILD.
The stellar performances, the forceful directing, the jarring editing, the brave storytelling mechanics – combine together majestically imbuing us with a sense of meaning.
WILD is an exorcism of emotion. Find it. Watch it. Feel it. Go there. Walk with Cheryl.
If you’re in the mood for unequivocally soul-baring character drama you will not be disappointed with Reese Witherspoon’s WILD.
The incredible journey of Cheryl Strayed reflects back on us. We are all lost… together. Finding peace is worth the perilous trek.
“Put yourself in the way of beauty.” – Chery Strayed, and Reese Witherspoon.
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