Reese Witherspoon finds a role worthy of her in “Wild,” playing a woman who hikes her way out of a tragic past, one painful, traumatic step at a time.
A find-yourself-by-testing-yourself drama in the “Into the Wild” or “The Way” mold, “Wild” sends Cheryl (Witherspoon) on a self-imposed spiritual quest to make amends for the damage she’s done to herself and others. A hiking novice with a writerly bent, she is drowning in a quagmire of needle drugs and degrading sexual encounters when she sets out to trek the Pacific Crest Trail.
Her goal is simple, to “walk myself back into the woman my mother thought I was.”
And with every step, every rookie hiker’s mistake, Cheryl remembers that mother (Laura Dern) and catalogs the ways her own life has gone so terribly wrong at such a young age.
Cheryl Strayed is the name she takes upon her divorce. She “Strayed” from Paul (Thomas Sadoski). And even though he is supportive, even though they got matching tattoos celebrating that divorce, even though he promises to send her letters and care packages at addresses along her hike, they can never be together.
Cheryl, a Minneapolis waitress, will march from the Mojave Desert north to Oregon and Washington. She will do it alone, a pretty blonde with no wilderness or long-walk background, relying on her wits, her resolve and the kindness of strangers to get her through.
That, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Adrienne Rich.
What saves this from becoming some indulgent and precious “Hike, Pray, Love” is Witherspoon’s earthy turn in the leading role, and the rich, nurturing presence of Dern, seen in flashbacks as the single mother who raised Cheryl.
Mom is mercurial, always smiling, always positive even when her kids ignore her when she goes back to their high school to get her own diploma. Dern lets us see the hurt beneath the smiles, the pain that explains their situation long before the movie spells it out for us.
Even lines as corny as “Put yourself in the way of beauty,” and “Try and do the kindest thing” ring true coming from Dern.
As he did with “The Dallas Buyers’ Club,” director Jean-Marc Vallee covers this inner and outer journey with a minimum of fuss. The flashbacks and their revelations, filling in the puzzle, are sparingly doled out. The stunning scenery Cheryl hikes through is barely noticed.
The humor comes from Cheryl’s salty fury at all the stuff she does wrong, from the wrong-sized hiking boots, to the overstuffed pack that threatens to “turtle” on her.
Lone hiker Cheryl is unusual enough in the mid-90s to provoke incredulous looks and sexist leers from the many men she encounters. Vallee wrings tension out of every nervous encounter she has with men in the middle of nowhere. Will this one be a folksy friend, a trail guide or that hunter-biker rapist one hears stories of?
Witherspoon, dressed down and bloodied up on the trail, nude and wasted in many of the flashbacks, wholly commits to this quest and makes the psychological journey work in concert with the physical one. When Cheryl walks out on a counselor, we get what she means when she suggests there is no “talking” cure for what ails her. Like Forrest Gump and the hero of next spring’s Robert Redford Appalachian Trail trek, “A Walk in the Woods,” sometimes the only way out of your past is to put one boot in front of the other and start walking.