Wild, the film of Cheryl Strayed’s book of the same name, is about a woman’s redemptive experience of hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s both a very personal story and a story about the transformative power of undertaking a major and difficult project and seeing it through. In this case that project is a very long wilderness hike and the story is also about the positive effects of long-distance walking and immersion in nature.
The film has proved controversial with some hikers who don’t like its portrayal of hiking while others have defended it by saying it’s not really about the Pacific Crest Trail anyway. I disagree with both points of view. I think it’s an excellent film that is about the Pacific Crest Trail, both from a general hiker’s perspective and from the intense personal experience of Cheryl Strayed, a novice hiker escaping from a horrendous life of drugs and casual sex and still bearing the trauma of dealing with the death of her beloved mother.
Viewing the film as a long-distance hiker I did wonder what non-hikers would make of it. As well as the beauty of the landscape the film shows much of the daily detail of long-distance hiking. Those who’ve hiked long trails will be familiar with many of the experiences, including some of the novice mistakes Strayed makes, and also appreciate the subtle ways in which she comes to enjoy the trail despite the blisters and sores. The film doesn’t flinch from the latter with close-ups of bloody mangled feet and red raw hips and shoulders. That hikers get dirty and smelly isn’t overlooked either – indeed the latter is mentioned several times – and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, certainly looks grimy enough. Some of the experiences – running out of water on a hot dry section, postholing through soft deep snow with a ridiculously heavy pack - matched those on my PCT hike enough for me to smile at the memories.. Supply boxes, trail angels, tent pitching, cooking, eating out a pot, hiking in the rain – they’re all there.
But the rewards are there too in the landscape, which looks enticing and just crying out to be hiked. For various reasons the film wasn’t actually made on the PCT apart from a few shots but the landscapes chosen as substitutes replicate it pretty well. Strayed’s hike took her from hot deserts to snow-covered mountains and all this is in the film.
Strayed’s hike forms, appropriately, the spine of the film. Her previous life, from childhood and joy with her mother to degradation after her mother’s death, is shown in the form of flashbacks linked to Strayed’s thoughts as she hikes and works through her past. Having read the book I knew what to expect here. It’s a harrowing story though and I can imagine that for viewers who hadn’t read the book some of the scenes of heroin use and sex could be quite startling and shocking, especially if they were expecting a film just about hiking. Using flashbacks like this is effective though as the background to the hike is slowly built up.
Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed, is excellent and convincing as a long-distance hiker and as the anguished woman trying to shed her demons. It’s an intense performance that really makes the film.
I thought the film as a whole was very good too. I’ll certainly watch it again. It fits in with those other outdoor journey-in-search-of-meaning films Tracks and Into The Wild and also, to a lesser extent, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. If you enjoyed those films I think you’ll enjoy Wild.
And on a final note – it really made me want to go on a long-distance hike.