Early in Wild, during one of the movie’s many flashbacks from a very long Pacific Crest Trail hike, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) chooses herself the new last name of Strayed, and I’m thinking: great, a scene with a big life change that looks suspiciously like a memoirist choosing a pen name. But the movie breaks down memoir resistance, if you have it (and if you don’t, I’ve got plenty to go around), through its steady accumulation of moments: Cheryl’s often-lonely struggles on the trail—she’s a novice hiker outfitted with a pack so large she can barely stand up—along with the additional struggles that brought her into the wild, namely the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern, handy casting shortcut for “beloved”).
It’s easy to read this as a distaff version of 127 Hours: both hinge on a lack of preparation (Strayed’s more epic, setting out with little training, but Aron Ralston’s more devastating, not heeding George Bluth and leaving a damn note), both giving way to flashes to backstory. Danny Boyle’s approach to 127 was more typically hallucinatory and, despite the literal trappings of Ralston being stuck under a boulder, more expansive filmmaking, while Wild director Jean-Marc Vallée (last year’s Oscar-acting weigh station Dallas Buyers Club) takes a more traditional approach to Cheryl’s past. But it’s still satisfying to watch him intercut moments from her pre-trail life with quick fluidity. They’re not quite impressionistic enough to disqualify themselves as scenes, but more fragmented than a traditional flashback-revelation structure.
The approach isn’t hard to follow, per se, but it prioritizes emotion over plot. In Dallas Buyers Club, the scrapbooky technique often felt at odds with the material; that incredible true story cried out for clearer procedure and sharper details. Wild‘s smaller story is semi-incredible and also true-ish, but its details are its emotions—the streams of Cheryl’s life that rush through her during the long walk. The movie, in other words, does an admirable job visualizing the potentially tedious process of a person walking around, thinking about herself. It also gives Witherspoon a chance to turn inward after several years laying low and/or playing girls defined by their gettability. Besides Dern, her best scene partners tend to be the one-off characters who cross her path, like the reporter for the Hobo Times convinced that she qualifies for an interview (she’s helpless to refute it) or the older couple who take her in for a hot meal.
But a movie about a long hike has a natural end point, which Wild reaches not knowing where to go next. This is where it really loses pace with 127 Hours, which finished with a bold mix of triumph and total fucking horror. Wild goes gentler than that, and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing; Witherspoon avoids a lot of the histrionics and suffering that traditionally result in awards buzz, and gives one of her best, most likable performances in a role that isn’t begging to be liked. The movie, though, wants to offer some kind of reassurance. Its open ending flirts with profundity, but whispers its way back to memoirland, where things having happened are reason enough for a detailed, self-reflecting chronicle. Wild offers a kind of new-age-y flipside to the nihilism of Burn After Reading of all things: What did Cheryl learn? I guess she learned to keep doing things.