The very first thing we see Reese Witherspoon do in Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is sit down at the edge of a steep cliff and pull off her toenail. She’s been on the trail for a few weeks at that point, hiking solo with too-tight boots and a ludicrously overstuffed pack, and her feet are in such rough shape that the blackened, bloody nail of the right big toe has to be painfully twisted off and cast into the abyss. In the process, one of those ill-fitting boots falls off the cliff as well, filling Reese-as-Cheryl with such rage that she hurls the second one down after it with a shrieked profanity.
Vallée’s choice to open on that gnarly toenail scene tells us a few important things about the movie to come. It will be tough to watch at times, but not necessarily in the could-you-survive-this? mode of Into the Wild, 127 Hours, or other films based on true-life stories about extreme outdoor ordeals. Though she gets into a few potentially dangerous situations and sustains an impressive array of lower-body bruises, Witherspoon’s spikily intelligent heroine will survive the experience physically intact, as did Strayed. We also learn right off the bat that the woman we’re about to spend two hours with is no stoic, hypercompetent action hero, but an impulsive, foul-mouthed, and often self-sabotaging regular person, the kind of screw-up we might be if we ever took it into our heads to walk 1,100 miles. Finally, that scene tells us that Wild will do whatever it takes to deglamorize Reese Witherspoon, an actress whose longtime association with perk and pluck this movie twists in interesting ways.
The story Wild cares about, and tells with admirable honesty and cinematic grace, has less to do with the out-of-doors than with the inside-of-head. It’s a journey through a dark night of the soul that just happens to take place in a breathtaking outward location—well, not quite “just happens to.” Strayed deliberately set herself the task of walking the trail as a kind of symbolic pilgrimage to recover from a dark period in her early 20s. After her beloved single mother died of cancer, she threw herself into a four-year bender of self-destructive behavior, including heroin abuse and multiple extramarital affairs. Finally, divorced, depressed, and making a living as a waitress in Minneapolis, she decides to spend her savings on cheap outdoor gear and set out alone to conquer the trail, which runs along a series of mountain ranges from the Mojave Desert into Washington state.
Wild accompanies that journey in nonchronological order—we quickly move back in time from the toenail rip, then forward, then back again—while weaving in occasional flashbacks to Cheryl’s childhood and, later, her mother’s last days. Vallée (who also directed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club) drifts from time frame to time frame with a free-associative looseness that evokes Cheryl’s fragmented mental state as she plods onward. The soundtrack, which includes great music by Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Portishead, and others, also often comes at us in fragmentary bursts, mimicking the way scraps of pop songs fight for space in your head when you’re alone. Yves Bélanger’s crystalline cinematography provides a stunning natural backdrop for this free-flowing interior monologue that—at least until an overly explicit stretch of voiceover near the end—rarely resorts to self-empowerment clichés.
In some of those flashbacks (too few), Laura Dern plays Cheryl’s earthy, life-loving mother, Bobbi, with a beatific radiance that skirts treacliness thanks to the actress’ reliable trick of infusing even the smallest roles with complex humanity. Dern is a natural wonder on the order of the Pacific Crest Trail itself, even if the version of Bobbi the script gives us doesn’t quite make clear how extraordinary the real woman’s story was. After leaving an abusive marriage to Strayed’s father, she brought up three children on a working-class salary and food stamps, living for a time in a house without indoor plumbing, and decided to begin working toward a college degree at the same time her daughter did. She was two months from her diploma when she died at age 45, only 49 days after being diagnosed.
It’s her painful but cathartic memories of Bobbi that keep Cheryl going on the trail, along with occasional care packages mailed to way stations on the route by her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), with whom she’s still close despite their marriage’s ugly dissolution. (In the book, it was a friend who sent needed objects to Strayed along the trail, but Nick Hornby’s adaptation streamlines this character with that of the ex.) In a series of flashbacks that could have used more development, Gaby Hoffmann, this year’s go-to cinematic BFF, drops by from the set of Obvious Child to offer comfort and tough love. Now and then there’s an encounter with the outside world: a farmer who takes Cheryl in for a night early in her journey, a fellow hiker who befriends her at a rest stop, a pair of leering hunters who serve as a menacing reminder that it’s always open season on women who travel alone. But for most of the running time of Wild, we’re alone with Cheryl’s stark aloneness with herself. And that’s a fine place to be, thanks to Hornby’s spare, witty screenplay and Witherspoon’s astringent performance.
Cheryl’s a female protagonist of a kind we rarely see in the movies, someone who can be not just unlikable but at times unknowable, even to herself. This woman is a piece of work: disorganized, sailor-mouthed, given to self-destructive promiscuity and addictive behavior, but also curious, sardonic, and scary smart. After her divorce but before the hike, Cheryl rechristens herself, changing her birth surname, Nyland, to the evocative past-tense verb Strayed. Along the trail, she leaves quotes from the books she reads in a public logbook, co-signing them with her own name: “Emily Dickinson and Cheryl Strayed,” “Adrienne Rich and Cheryl Strayed.” Claiming co-authorship with the greats is a gesture of writerly hubris, sure, but it’s also an act of self-reinvention that somehow puts you on the side of this woman so determined to build up an interior self again, word by word.