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Movie review 'Wild': Reese Witherspoon shines in this mostly solo effort

DC | ROHINI NAIR
Published Feb 20, 2015, 9:20 pm IST
Updated Mar 29, 2019, 6:56 pm IST
In Wild, Reese Witherspoon recreates writer Cheryl Strayed’s solo 1,100-mile trek of the Pacific Crest Trail.

 Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Run time: 120 minutes
Rating: **** (four stars)
 
I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately
 
Since the time Thoreau wrote those words in Walden, it’s been a way for people to articulate just what they’re looking for when they break away from civilisation and all its trappings and choose — for however long — to lead a life closer to nature. Popular accounts like Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer (the true life account of a young graduate called Christopher McCandless who went into Alaska to live off the land) have only served to increase the mystique around this brand of adventure. There is a belief that in shunning modern life and returning to a more primitive state of being, one that is in close communion with nature, we will somehow find the redemption or salvation we need.
 
It is this idea that is at the center of 'Wild' as well. The Reese Witherspoon starrer (she has also produced the film) is based on the memoir of writer Cheryl Strayed, who trekked the scenic, challenging 1,100-mile long Pacific Crest Trail for about three months, alone, at the age of 26. Devastated by her mother’s death due to cancer when she was a final year college student, Cheryl found herself disintegrating in the years after: She abuses heroin, her promiscuity effectively ends her marriage, one of her sexual encounters leaves her pregnant. In the drug-store where she’s waiting to buy a pregnancy kit, she finds a book on the Pacific Crest Trail, something about it calls out to her, and she knows what she has to do: With very little experience and not enough preparation, she sets off to walk the PCT.
 
There’s a scene at the start of her journey when the petite Cheryl tries to lift her backpack (fellow hikers she later meets on the trail nickname it “Monster”) and realises it’s too heavy for her. Lifting it onto her back requires her to first get down on the floor, pull its straps onto her shoulders, roll over onto her side, try to get onto all fours, and then lift herself up by holding on to a table. It’s funny, yet allegorical. By the time she’s mid-way through her journey, Cheryl sheds a lot of her baggage — literally and metaphorically. Her load is much lighter now, and although carrying it all those miles leaves her bruised, she soldiers on.
 
As Cheryl walks over wide open meadows, damp wilderness, desert scrub, through rocky mountains and snow, she carries on a monologue with herself. Through these, we go back in time to memories of her childhood and her physically violent father, the unwavering optimism and happiness of her mother that nothing can deflect, and Cheryl’s own raw grief at the cancer diagnosis, and the years after.
 
When she’s not battling her inner demons, Cheryl is dealing with the challenges of the trail — surviving on cold mush when her portable stove won’t work, being on her guard with threats from the wild, and with potential threats from the men she meets, and the many physical hurts the rough trail inflicts. In one of her lowest points, she loses both her boots and tapes her feet to protect them; in another she is reduced to drinking water from a rank pond after her supply runs out, and the water tank marked on the trail map turns out to have run dry.
 
Despite all her travails however, she is never once immune to the beauty that is around her, and as the viewer, neither are you. The Simon and Garfunkel songs that keep fading in and out (El Condor Pasa and Homeward Bound feature prominently on the soundtrack) only add to the melancholic, soul-stirring imagery, captured so adroitly by the cinematographer Yves Belanger. And Reese Witherspoon shines in this mostly solo effort — she has received a Best Actress nod at the Oscars, as has Laura Dern (who plays Cheryl’s mother) for Best Supporting Actress.
 
While director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) gets wonderfully nuanced performances out of everyone in this film, he deserves a special mention just for his handling of one scene in which Cheryl comes across a little boy (played by an adorable Evan O’Toole) out camping with his grandma, who sings her a folk song called Red River Valley: “From this valley they say you are going/ We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile/ For they say you are taking the sunshine/ That has brightened our pathway a while. So come sit by my side if you love me/ Do not hasten to bid me adieu/ Just remember the Red River Valley/ And the cowboy that has loved you so true.” It’s a milestone in Cheryl’s journey, the one within herself.
 
A recent report on the real life Cheryl Strayed made a point about how walking is such an essential part of so many pilgrimages. There are spiritual journeys that require you to walk great, challenging distances, reinforcing somehow the idea that there must be a mystical power in the act of placing one foot before the other, ceaselessly, hardships to the contrary, until you reach your goal. In moving forwards, we make peace with the past. In Wild, what you see on screen is an individual’s pilgrimage, perhaps the greatest one we might undertake: A quest for meaning, for forgiveness, for finding out what you’re really made of, for reclaiming life. And what an inspiring journey it is. 
 
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