Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, at this point already hundreds of miles into her solo journey in the wilderness. As we take in a majestic establishing shot, we hear Cheryl — out of frame — rapidly breathing and moaning. Is she in pain? Ecstasy? And... she's ripping off a bloody big toenail. To illuminate the dark path that brought Cheryl to this point, Wild slides breezily between past and present and into Cheryl's psyche like a carefree hour-long hike on an autumn day.
With no previous backpacking experience, Cheryl plods across desserts and snowy mountains with a hulking 60-pound backpack loaded with a small library's worth of literature and superfluous camping provisions. After quickly setting up camp on the first day a couple miles in, Cheryl repeats a bit of a poem by Adrienne Rich about Nobel Prize–winning radioactivity research pioneer Marie Curie. It's a line that serves as a good summary of the lesson Cheryl is traveling 1,100 miles to learn: "She died... denying her wounds came from the same source as her power."
While she's packed to the gills on the trail, Cheryl still has plenty of baggage in her closet: an ex-husband, The Newsroom's Thomas Sadoski; and her single mother, Laura Dern (Jurassic Park). (I refuse, by the way, to believe Dern is any less of a lovably awkward hippie in real life as she is here and in the similarly themed sublime HBO series Enlightened.) Besides sharing Dern, I couldn't help but feel Enlightened and Wild have much more in common: a flawed protagonist who feels confused, alone and seeking meaning — a person not fully aware of why she does the things she does or why she hurts the people she loves in her attempts to find happiness.
These flaws and Witherspoon's strong performance make it hard not to identify with and root for Cheryl, even if it's only because I imagine I too would be cursing under my breath just as profusely every step of the way were I in her shoes.
Wild is often quiet and slow, with music playing as if a faint echo from a far away place as Cheryl crunches through snow and dirt, but it never feels dull. It all comes to an unassuming but empowering conclusion with a word-for-word passage from Strayed's memoir that is deeply satisfying without feeling overly Hollywood. What could have easily felt a cliché quest for meaning ends up being a rewarding journey at the hands of director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About A Boy). It's a road worth exploring.