Wild: Hiking, Health, and Heroin

A drama

  • Written by Nick Hornby, from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed
  • Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life, until she walked into the real wild and got herself together. I don’t know or care whether the film is accurate to Strayed’s memoirs or experience. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s a powerful story of loss, love, fear, and personal courage.

Cheryl’s three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail makes up the film’s spine. (I’m calling the real person Strayed, and the character in the movie Cheryl.) As played by Reese Witherspoon (who also Executive Produced), Cheryl starts the journey woefully unprepared. She’s packed too much to carry. She bought the wrong stove fuel. Her shoes don’t fit properly.

Of course she learns along the way. Other hikers she meets give her help and advice. She becomes physically stronger. She learns through practice. She occasionally dips back into civilization, and especially enjoys a stop in Ashland, OR.

But the hike is largely pictured as difficult and dangerous. She runs out of water. She gets lost in the snow. More than once, she faces the very real possibility of rape.

The film never fully explains why she went on this arduous journey. But the flashbacks, which take up a good portion of the film’s running time, give us a clue. Unlike the main journey, the flashbacks are not told chronologically.

Many of the flashbacks involve her mother (Laura Dern), a woman who embraces life despite the many nasty turns it has given her. Poor and single, she loves her children deeply, and finds great joy in their company and in life itself. Her death by cancer at much too young an age clearly left a deep mark on Cheryl.

And then there’s the matter of her marriage, which Cheryl destroyed with her drug abuse–including a period of heroin addiction–and her habitual promiscuity. Her ex-husband is still her confidant and best friend. This is very much a young woman who needs to make a big change in her life.

One minor technical complaint: Wild was shot with the Arri Alexa XT, one of the best digital cameras around. For most movies, it’s all you need. But for capturing the beauty of the great outdoors, 35mm film still surpasses the best digital camera–even if the image is screened digitally.

And yet, I can understand the choice to use the Alexa. Much of Wild was shot in difficult locations, and carrying multiple thousand-foot-rolls of 35mm film would have made a difficult shoot much more difficult.

Besides, this film really isn’t about the beauty of the great outdoors. Only once does Cheryl stop to admire the view–and that time, the view includes full frontal male nudity.

Wild concentrates on something more basic than visual beauty. It’s really about the difficulties and dangers of those wild outdoors, and how a challenge can change a person for the better.