As we move through the stages of our lives, each and every one of us carries our own personal baggage – the weight of our sins and our misgivings, learning as we do that the burdens of our pasts are ours and ours alone. At the end of the day, no one can pick up your history from off your shoulders; there is no reprieve from the life you once lived. Throughout our existence, some of us pick up more weight than others, the sins packing up until the sheer mass of mistakes consumes you, leaving your life in shambles. In cases like this, your choice becomes to either let yourself be crushed or learn to walk a little harder. This is the reality faced — literally and figuratively — by Cheryl Strayed in Wild, the new film from Dallas Buyer’s Club director Jean-Marc Vallee.
Based on the memoir of the same name, Wild follows Strayed (magnificently played by Reese Witherspoon, who gives a nuanced and, at times, shocking performance) as she attempts to pick up the pieces of her life following a series of personal tragedies. In an attempt to both atone for and understand the mistakes that led her life astray, Strayed embarks on a solo journey to hike the Pacific Crest Trail; along the way, we learn the secrets of her history that has brought her here as she treks ever onward towards the unknown.
The description may sound slight, but thanks to a top-notch adaptation provided by High Fidelity novelist Nick Hornby — as well as superb direction and performances — Cheryl’s story quickly becomes one filled with symbolism and meaning; Cheryl’s past and present struggles might be miles apart from your personal baggage, but her trek is emblematic of the journey we all take as we strive to understand our place in this world and what we actually want from out of our existence.
The themes of weight are established early as we witness Cheryl struggle to carry — indeed, even to lift — her massive backpack; compelled — by obsession, by necessity, by sheer will, or some combination of the above — beyond reason, she journeys off into the wild unknown, taking with her nothing but the actual and symbolic weight of her existence. Her fears and her confusion are made palpable by Witherspoon, who herself carries the weight of this movie square on her shoulders, as she attempts to reconcile her past with whom she wishes to be.
It never feels as though Strayed is asking for our sympathy or pity. At no point are we expected to let her off the hook for the sins that brought her here. Witherspoon plays her as she is: flawed and vulnerable, yet determined and strong. Through this, she becomes sympathetic. Her journey of atonement and personal reconciliation is infinitely relatable and ultimately inspiring. If Strayed can have the past she did, and if she can walk those thousand miles, then it’s too conceivable that any of us can weather any of our struggles.
As her naiveté dwindles and fades, we see the possibility of personal redemption, of self-forgiveness, and of rewards reaped through determination. Cheryl learns, and we see the beauty of struggle and overcoming the enemy of ourselves; one can’t help but leave the theater that much more determined to make it through one’s own travels and to leave their mark on the world.
Wild is a deceptively complex film hidden inside of an overtly simple one. The script is rock solid, beautifully showcasing Hornby’s knack for detail and juxtaposition. Nary a word is wasted as scenes move effortlessly between various pasts and present. Under his crafty eye, Strayed is rendered a full and complete human being, one whom we want to succeed even if we can’t forgive the sins of her past. Witherspoon, for her part, fully embodies the role, diving headlong into the project and making the character her own. This is very easily the best performance of her career and wholly deserving of any and all awards she might receive. She’s already nominated for a Golden Globe and, if we’re being honest, there’s little competition for the title. It will be shocking if she isn’t also nominated for the Oscar.
Still, regardless of any acclaim or awards, Wild is worthy of both your attention and your dollar. Strayed’s journey may be long and treacherous, but it’s still one of hope and redemption. It would have been very easy for the film to descend into hammy, trite self-parody – but thanks to Valle, Hornby, and Witherspoon, it ascends higher than one might think. It may not seem like proper holiday movie fare, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more uplifting and inspirational movie this season.