“But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep”
In 1995, Cheryl Strayed left her life behind for three months to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Reese Witherspoon optioned Strayed’s memoir as a star vehicle: a cathartic comeback for the sidelined Oscar winner, and a welcome way to leave her rom-com past behind. Julia Roberts must be furious Reese got this after she did Eat Pray Love. Though the trail is tough, Wild doesn’t over-dramatize her hardship out in the elements. The most terrifying places Cheryl goes are internal.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée filters her walk through memories: of her mom (played by an effortless Laura Dern) and her sudden cancer diagnosis, of men she cheated and shot heroin with. Vallée’s impressionistic edits to her past went both ways for me: he’s found a way to keep the walk from seeming monotonous. But the flashbacks feel very obvious when they come. We flash back to Cheryl choosing her new last name because, hey, she strayed from her husband. Nick Hornby of High Fidelity wrote the script, and his attempts to mix the past and present feel paint-by-numbers. This movie is a tamer version of male survival narratives like 127 Hours.
At its best, Wild is unapologetically feminist. For Cheryl, nature isn’t the real threat. The obstacles she faces (rocks in her path, a rattlesnake showdown) feel easy, almost anti-cinematic. The real fight is against the outdoors being a male-dominated sphere. Early on, her encounter with a tractor driver builds like an abduction scene, then our expectations quickly change when he turns out to be an honest farmboy. Over dinner, however, he tells Strayed her husband is a fool for letting his wife on the trail. Later, Cheryl is approached by two lewd men, and one comes back on his own, ogling her, rendering her unequipped and defenseless.
Even in harmless ways, sexism dogs her. A mail station manager offers her far more attention than the boys at the same stop, and they jokingly call her “Queen of the PCT.” In one of Hornby’s stronger flashbacks, her mother tells Cheryl she wants it all, setting her college coursework aside to make dinner for her family. Cheryl knows the expectations for her as a woman, and finishing the trail is her start at restoring balance. She has miles further to go.