One of the feats of Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir, is how effectively it “deglamorizes” the polished persona of Reese Witherspoon, who plays Strayed. As Dana Stevens writes in her review, Witherspoon has a “longtime association with perk and pluck,” which “this movie twists in interesting ways.” Director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby mimic the structure of the memoir, presenting every scene of Cheryl on the trail solely from her perspective, with a stream-of-consciousness-style voiceover giving viewers access to her thoughts. Out on the trail, the viewer experiences things as Cheryl sees them.
At one point, Cheryl sardonically jokes to herself, “Hi, I’m an unaccompanied female hitchhiker. Want to give me a ride, so you can rape and dismember me?” It’s one of the movie’s most striking lines—and it’s thematically essential. Wild shows how women must operate in a male-dominated society on a daily basis, in a way that’s rare on screen. It is, on one level, the feature-film equivalent of the recent viral video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” in which a woman is harassed by countless men simply as she walks down the street. There are stark differences between the two, to be sure, but both get at the same overarching truth: that women on the whole have to be on guard and aware of the people they meet in a way that men do not. And both viral video and feature film accomplish this by putting you in a woman’s shoes.
Wild isn’t showy in its approach, and that’s a real strength. The movie simply tells Cheryl’s story of how she got to where she is—through intermittent flashbacks to her mother’s death, her subsequent spiral into reckless behavior, and the dissolution of her marriage—and portrays her inner struggle as she attempts her hike. Wild thus unfurls without an obvious agenda, which is apparent in the wide range of men Cheryl comes across throughout her hike (and save for one other solo female hiker, they’re all men). Nearly all of them are good guys, happy to assist her when she needs it.
There’s an older farmworker named Frank, for instance, who brings her into his home to have a warm meal with his wife and get a proper shower. (At this point, she is very low on food.) Greg, a friendly and experienced hiker, advises her to avoid a particular route on account of snow; later, when she sees him at one of the designated resting points, he introduces her to other guys embarking on the trail, all of whom are impressed to see a woman hiking alone.
In these situations and a few others, the men are not only harmless but helpful. And yet Cheryl is always on guard at the beginning of each interaction—because she must be, in a way that men do not experience. With Frank, for instance, the audience (along with Cheryl) fears the worst—until we’re certain that he is actually bringing her home to his wife, and neither of them have any ill intentions. Wild builds suspense here by forcing the audience to think about things the way Cheryl does: While waiting for Frank in his truck, she finds a gun in his glove compartment; when he returns, he says things that could be construed as aggressively flirtatious. “Don’t tell my wife,” he jokes—right before pulling out a stash of licorice and offering her some. Cheryl is relieved, temporarily—though she does make a point of mentioning a fictional husband who’s supposedly somewhere ahead of her on the trail.
One such moment is not a false alarm; it is legitimately unsettling. At a watering hole, Cheryl encounters two men who creepily comment on her physical attributes in the guise of “joking around.” A put-off Cheryl doesn’t hang around—she tells them she’s going to continue hiking, and waits for them to leave before she returns to the same spot to set up camp. One of them soon reappears out of nowhere, leering and again remarking on her “nice figure.” When she rebuffs him, startled, he replies, “Can’t a guy give a compliment anymore?” (A familiar, knee-jerk reaction from catcallers.) Cheryl reluctantly says thank you in order to placate him, before his friend fortunately calls him away.
Cinematically, Wild doesn’t wring these encounters for melodramatic effect: There are no overbearing musical cues or slow-mo camera movements. Rather, Vallée and Hornby let Cheryl’s experience speak for itself. Contrast that with a scene in Luc Besson’s recent hit Lucy: Early in the film, Scarlett Johansson’s title character is being held prisoner by a drug cartel, which is using her body to smuggle drugs, inadvertently giving her superhuman powers. A man enters her holding cell, with intentions the film only hints at. Lucy anticipates what he’s after, and pretends to be along for the ride.
Lucy quickly vanquishes this predator with her newly acquired superhuman powers. Throughout the film, her life is threatened by men who want to harm her, but, this being an action movie with a race-against-time premise, the movie doesn’t dwell long on any emotional toll this takes on her.
Or consider Thelma & Louise, the ultimate feminist fantasy: After Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots and kills a man who tries to rape Thelma (Geena Davis) outside a bar, the two set out on the run, because they’re sure no one will believe their account of what happened. The film is littered with lewd, unsavory men, such as the truck driver who shouts obscenities at them on the highway.
Thelma & Louise is a powerful depiction of the traumatic experiences many women go through at the hands of men. But it’s a fantastical one: The scene involving the explosion of the truck driver’s propane tank, for instance, is the stuff of Michael Bay’s dreams. Wild delivers its own feminist message in a much different manner—a manner that’s closer to the everyday experience of most women. And, just as we saw with the viral video from Hollaback!, it’s an experience that many well-intentioned men have never totally grasped (though the male-centric This Is the End addressed this issue with an impressively deft joke involving Emma Watson). A scene with Cheryl and some newfound hiking friends nicely captures how oblivious men can be about this.
The guys tease her about being treated like a “queen” on the trail; the jab is without malice, but they really don’t seem to understand what she had to go through to get as far as she did. Not because she’s naturally inferior to them and other men, but because, as a woman in a male-dominated environment, she is constantly vulnerable to a kind of violence they mostly don’t have to worry about. Hence that grim joke about being raped. If these men watch Wild, which amounts to walking many miles in Cheryl’s shoes, they may genuinely start to get it.