There’s something fiercely feminist about Wild, never mind that it’s written by one man (Nick Hornby) and directed by another (Jean-Marc Vallee). Perhaps they were able to tune in to the gender concerns of the source material – Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail – or perhaps they simply got out of the way, as Reese Witherspoon channeled those concerns directly through her prickly performance. Either way, this is a rare Hollywood movie that not only has a female lead, but a defiantly unlikeable one.
Strayed’s hike, you see, is her last-ditch attempt to save herself from her own destructive habits. In the wake of the sudden illness of her mother (Laura Dern), she acted out in ways that left behind a shattered marriage and strained friendships. As she heads out on the trail, she finds that immersing herself in the great outdoors only brings her further into her own head, as these broken relationships and her mother’s suffering continue to haunt her.
Editing alongside Martin Pensa, Vallee creates an impressionistic tapestry woven from nature and memories. It’s evocative, even if it leaves a few gaps in the narrative. We see snippets of Strayed’s descent – the drug use, the promiscuity – but never quite get a full understanding of how her grief led her there.
It’s up to Witherspoon to carry most of the film, then, and she proves to be more than capable. She captures Strayed’s irresponsibly impulsive side, which led her to the trail, but also her resilient core, which will lead her out. And she traces Strayed’s inching toward wisdom without being overly apologetic. As a feminist work, Wild is notably missing the curdled condemnation of Nymphomaniac, its 2014 counterpart in some ways. This is also one woman’s extreme journey, only shared with a lighter touch and far less auteurist comment.