It’s been a banner year at the movies for women walking immense distances. Back in September, Mia Wasikowska starred in Tracks, an adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s memoir about her solo trek across the Australian desert in 1977. That journey covers some 1,700 miles, yet somehow never seems especially arduous on-screen; the movie focuses more on Davidson’s various rest stops along the way than on her physical strain, jumping early on from day one to day 29. By contrast, Wild, adapted from a similar memoir by Cheryl Strayed, wants you to feel every weary step its protagonist takes as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail alone for 1,100 miles. One early scene observes Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, as she struggles just to rise to her feet after strapping on the gigantic pack she’ll be traveling with—she hasn’t even left her bedroom yet, and the task she’s set herself already seems insurmountable. It’s that sense of dogged effort, much more than any expository flashbacks, that makes Wild a compelling tale of rebirth.
There are flashbacks aplenty, though. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, and he’s opted to withhold the circumstances that inspired Strayed’s trip, strategically revealing her backstory a bit at a time along the way. There are glimpses of Cheryl as a little girl, being raised by her adoring mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), along with more ominous glimpses of Cheryl as an adult, doing heavy drugs and engaging in “reckless” sex. (Whatever regrets Strayed may have about her behavior during that period of her life, Wild still falls into the trap of demonizing sexual activity that would seem unremarkable if the character were male.) In the present tense of 1995, meanwhile, Cheryl—who changed her surname to Strayed as a symbolic gesture, and clearly feels the need to find the limits of her endurance—just keeps on trudging. The film depicts her occasional encounters with others (including a hilarious scene in which she’s interviewed by a writer for the Hobo Times, who’s very excited to see a “lady hobo”), but it mostly respects her need for solitude.
In general, Wild’s ratio of dramatic incident (including a tense encounter with a couple of plainly predatory men) to “just existing in nature” is nicely judged. A director with more interest in unadorned process might have fashioned the film into a sort of land-based cousin to last year’s terrific All Is Lost, which featured Robert Redford solo and silent for almost its entire running time. Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) isn’t that kind of filmmaker, but he does succeed in preventing the many flashbacks from completely disrupting Strayed’s steady, plodding rhythm. And he has a fine ally in Witherspoon, who cranks it up a little in excerpts from Cheryl’s “lost years,” but has enough self-confidence to avoid histrionics when alone on the trail, which is much of the time. People tend to equate great acting with demonstrative emoting, but knowing when not to telegraph what a character is feeling is just as crucial. Sometimes, walking from point A to point Z—simply, without fuss—is all that’s required.