Too many metaphors are employed to convey the story of Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who sets off on a grueling 1000-mile hike in order to exorcise personal demons, in Wild. Reese Witherspoon plays the protagonist, who’s shouldering a massive backpack that symbolizes her emotional baggage as she embarks on the Pacific Crest Trail that will likely take three months to complete.
Adapted by Nick Hornby from a book by the real Ms Strayed, this ‘based-on-a-true-story’ movie nevertheless suffers on account of its sheer obviousness. Although less contrived than the similarly themed Eat Pray Love, this film also asks that we celebrate the frankly self-indulgent journey of catharsis undertaken by a relatively privileged woman seeking atonement for her bad decisions.
In the case of Cheryl, she spiraled out of control following the death of her beloved mother and sank into an abyss of dangerous drugs and anonymous sex, which cost her her marriage. This back-story is pieced together through flashbacks, with glimpses of her former ways and also scenes from happier times with her mum, called into her memory throughout the long walk.
The journey itself is not as easy one. Cheryl encounters everything from snakes and wolves, to lecherous hikers and a callous journalist as she traverses the uneven landscape across extreme and varying weather conditions. Mountains must be climbed and streams must be crossed (metaphor alert!) before she can lighten her burdens.
Witherspoon seizes the role, but it’s a case of bad casting if you ask me. Never once was I convinced that I was watching a woman who was broken inside. The actress is way too earnest and self-conscious, and she can’t shake off the feeling that you’re watching a big star slumming it for the sake of her art.
The film’s true emotional core is Laura Dern’s heartbreaking turn as Cheryl’s mother, a woman trying her best to make the most of the raw deal she’s been dealt. Appearing intermittently in the film, Dern survives the corny dialogue and even succeeds in somewhat uplifting the material.
The film benefits also from director Jean-Marc Vallee’s strong eye for visuals, and his ability to put you at the centre of the action. You’ll wince in the opening scene as Cheryl pulls out a bloodied toenail, and just staring ahead at the vast expanse of sand or snow is overwhelming.
In the end, Wild proves to be that rare movie about an epic life-changing journey that leaves you impressed by its scale and ambition, but largely unmoved by the person at the heart of it. I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.