“Whatever way you choose, don’t beat yourself up about. You look like you’ve done plenty of that already.”
This bit of wisdom comes from a hiker relaying information about how there is snow in the mountains, suggesting that Cheryl Strayed could bypass the problematic section of the Pacific Coast Trail. Cheryl bristles at the suggestion to skip any section, stating that she came to walk not to ride. Like almost everything in Wild, the dialogue takes on a double meaning representing both its literal meaning and being a symbol for her journey.
Cheryl Strayed is a real life woman who made a mess of her life, becoming a neurotically-promiscuous heroin junky, before she cleared everything out of her head by taking a 3-month 1000+ mile hike down the Pacific Coast Trail. Portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, Cheryl is doggedly rebellious and full of self-determination. She starts the adventure full of self-doubt, but must overcome her own limits and her own past as she walks by herself.
Per conventions of the genre, as Cheryl hikes along the trail, she meets wise people who pass along wise words about life and herself. She also meets unhelpful men on the trail, most of them acting predatory to convey both the threat of sexual danger that women face on their own as well as relaying to the audience how these predators inform women’s interactions with other non-predators. All of this present day commentary on womanhood takes a backseat to both Cheryl dealing with her past and the gorgeous landscapes she faces through her journey.
Wild‘s strength is also its weakness. Nick Hornby’s screenplay layers symbols upon symbols, and careens the plot around itself like echoes through the mind. If you’ve spent a significant time with yourself at a crossroad in your life, you’ll recognize how this structure resembles your thought process. You spend your time careening over your past, subconsciously looking for symbols to help you, and the ones you do find are heavy-handed and obvious. When Cheryl starts at the motel, she struggles to put on her epic hiking backpack. She can’t lift it to the bed, so she sits on the ground to strap it to herself. When she tries getting up, her backpack crushes her before she can finally stand up; the backpack symbolizing the problems and history she carries around with her. At another moment, she faces a big bunch of boulders that seem almost impossible to cross, before flashing back to yet another particularly difficult moment in Cheryl’s past.
Even though the symbols can run from subtle to Nathaniel Hawthorne-obvious, that range mirrors the wild emotional notes that plays throughout Cheryl’s life. She had a roller coaster of highs and lows, mostly lows, where she has to deal with how her past has colored her as a person. If you walk through your past, you don’t remember the neutrals so much as the high- and low-lights. You never really remember that one time you cooked spaghetti and watched The Big Bang Theory on another Thursday night (not to knock eating spaghetti or watching television), but you remember the time you emotionally attacked your mother because you felt like shit.
Reese Witherspoon reaches deep into herself to pull out an interesting performance, but one that never reached the fragility needed for such a broken character. Cheryl’s strength, even during her lowest moments, causes Cheryl to seem more like an selfish person. Frequently throughout the film, she uses other people for whatever they have to give – strength, wisdom, food – but rarely gives back in turn. As the film goes on, she eventually has the strength to help out other people in turn, but Witherspoon’s lack of weakness at the beginning creates a false selfishness as well as a muted character arc.
It’s Laura Dern, as Cheryl’s mother, who has the stand-out performance of the movie. Bobbi is an uneducated single mother raising two children dealing with their own trauma. She is the shining light of Cheryl’s life, constantly smiling through all of life’s trials and tribulations. But Bobbi is also fragile in her happiness, forcing her smile out of herself as though it could break at any moment. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking performance to remind Cheryl that sometimes happiness is the only thing you can control in life.
As Bobbi’s spirit hangs over Cheryl, the legacy of Slumdog Millionaire hangs over Wild. Both are emotionally manipulative and symbolically heavy journeys through a person’s past by way of a present day framing device. Wild replaces the pop culture machinations of a game show with a 3-month hike, but they both hit many of the same emotional notes. To its advantage, Wild has a better balance between the present and the past, and eschews the linear format of Slumdog for the fractured nature of memory.
For all of the emotional resonance and heavy-handed symbolism, I saw a bit of the universality of the journey and tortured memory. It’s also really nice watching a woman have the full emotional journey without it being about getting a man. Even if Wild is occasionally spoon-fed pandering, the magic of cinema will allow the viewer to gloss over this and figure out what they would get out of the same journey. Sometimes, it’s nice being in a well-developed character’s shoes even if they’re surrounded by anvils.