Wild, bio-based adventure drama, rated R, Regal DeVargas, 3 chiles Henry David Thoreau knew what he was doing. In Walden, he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” Twenty-six-year-old Cheryl Strayed, on the other hand, an inexperienced hiker and camper, decided almost on a whim to strap on a backpack and hike 1,100 miles of the challenging Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the California desert on the U.S./ Mexico border, through the snowy Sierra Nevada, and all the way up to Canada. Years later, Strayed composed a memoir recounting that journey, and it became a widely acclaimed bestseller in 2012.
This moving, ruggedly beautiful adaptation of Strayed’s book — directed by Jean-Marc Vallée ( Dallas Buyers Club), with a screenplay by Nick Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy), and starring Reese Witherspoon — seems destined for similar success. The performances are strong, natural, and grounded. Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger capture breathtaking scenery and settings with deft camerawork and rely largely on natural light, with sometimes luminous results. Much like Strayed’s original writings, the storytelling is honest, vivid, and nonjudgmental — you get a pretty good sense of what it would’ve been like to plod along that trail with her. It’s also a pleasure to watch a female-centric film with a happy ending that doesn’t involve a man, a child, or a job.
West Coast trails are a far, far cry from the red carpet, and you’ve never seen Witherspoon looking so unvarnished and gritty. It’s probably difficult to make her look unattractive, but she appears here glamour-free. She digs deep and commits to the role fully — screaming, crying, cursing, and eating oatmeal with her fingers. She grasps that we don’t need to like Cheryl, but we need to understand her. Heading up the solid supporting cast is the wonderful Laura Dern, who plays Cheryl’s beloved mother, and Thomas Sadoski ( The Newsroom) as Cheryl’s soulful, sad-eyed ex-husband. And watch for the real-life Strayed in a cameo. She’s the pickup-truck driving woman who drops Cheryl off at the start of her journey and wishes her good luck.
As Cheryl hikes, we learn more about her through a series of flashbacks and flickering recollected images. Her father was an abusive alcoholic. Her mother skipped college, raised two children on her own, and died prematurely from cancer at age forty-five. In the wake of the devastating loss of her mother, Cheryl began using heroin and engaging in anonymous sex with multiple partners. Her marriage imploded (at the time of the divorce, she changed her last name from Nyland to Strayed because of her infidelities).
Now she’s a woman alone in the wilderness, and Witherspoon captures both her vulnerability and the impressive fortitude she had to summon. She faces hunger, thirst, injury, unexpected weather, and predatory men. I appreciated the way the film pointed out an unfortunate fact of female existence: Even in an equalizing place like the wilderness, we are not always seen or treated equally, and at times our safety depends entirely on men’s impulses and better natures.
The film does have its shortcomings. Some elements are a little too on-the-nose, particularly the soundtrack’s use of the Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and (repeatedly) Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” and “Homeward Bound.” The quotes Cheryl writes in the hiker registries at various points along the trail are both narrated and displayed onscreen, reminding us of how poignant they are. Cheryl’s flashbacks work better on the page than the screen. They aren’t chronological, which is fine, since memories rarely return to us in order, but some are redundant and stall the story’s movement.
By way of explaining what motivated Cheryl to hit the trail, the film offers up vague woo-woo-ish sentiments like “it’s how to find your best self,” “I’m gonna walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was,” and “I’m going to put myself in the way of beauty.” Yes, yes, we get it: Cheryl had to lose herself in the actual wilderness to find her way out of the figurative woods. These voice-over reminders make the film feel constructed and packaged — especially jarring in a film about an experience that was so organic, unpredictable, and, well, wild. But, really, this is a film about a flawed individual seeking redemption. It wouldn’t be right for it to be perfect.
— Laurel Gladden
She dwelt among the untrodden ways: Reese Witherspoon