Look up the term tour de force in a dictionary, and among the definitions will be the following: “a feat requiring unusual strength, skill, or ingenuity.” Certainly this definition can apply to any number of things, and one of them definitely is what a 26-year-old woman named Cheryl Strayed accomplished in the summer of 1995. After losing her mother to lung cancer, going through a divorce, and subjecting her body to heroin abuse, she decided only one thing could help her find inner peace and purge her demons. She would take a solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the border of Washington and Oregon – a distance of 1,100 miles.
In her 2012 memoir titled “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” Strayed recounts her three-month trip, and now the book is a major motion picture directed by Academy Award-winner Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”), adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, and starring Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon. Strayed’s story is an amazingly harrowing one, and while Witherspoon’s portrayal of her should be a lock for an Academy Award nomination, I must confess that the film didn’t blow me away as I hoped it would.
As the film begins, Cheryl, a novice hiker, is preparing for her trip by putting together the enormous backpack she will carry throughout the venture. She loads the pack down with just about everything but the kitchen sink, and one of the most humorous segments in the film occurs when she tries to get he pack on her back and stand up. Reports about the actual weight of the backpack vary between 70 and 80 pounds. In an online interview with Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press, Witherspoon spoke about the difficulties with the role.
“By far, it’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. The physical aspects were really challenging — the elements, the heat, the cold, the water, the rain, 55 locations in 35 days, and carrying that backpack. And there was nothing else to cut to — just me.
“Emotionally, it was even harder. One day I’d be getting divorced. Another, my mother would be dying. The next day I’d be using heroin. It was just nonstop — not even a roller coaster, just a continual descent downward! There are always scenes that I dread, that I say, ‘That day’s going to be miserable.’ And here, it was three weeks of that.”
Because the film is based upon a memoir rather than a novel, there is no particular plotline. We simply walk along with Cheryl as she painstakingly proceeds on her journey, and we learn about the trials and tribulations she has suffered in her life through a series of flashbacks. During her sojourn Cheryl encounters myriad obstacles including scorching heat in the desert, an encounter with a rattlesnake, a heavy snowfall, a few frightening male hikers, and countless scrapes, bruises, and blisters. Every 100 miles or so she comes to a rest stop where she can replenish her supplies and pick up care packages sent by her ex-husband.
As we watch her proceed along the PCT, we see her gain more and more confidence in her ability to cope with the rigors of the wilderness. Now unfortunately I have not read the book upon which the film was based, but I did read some reviews of it, and I think the movie version really watered the story down. For example, the reviews point out that Cheryl encountered black bears, rattlesnakes, and a swarm of frogs along the way. From this list, the film gives us one incident with a single rattlesnake, which Cheryl merely steps around and keeps on going. The review also mentions a blizzard that we don’t see in the film, and this brings me to the major problem I have with the movie.
Based upon the research I’ve done, it seems to me that the film has somewhat minimized just how harrowing Cheryl’s hike actually was. The only wildlife she comes across throughout the movie is that lone rattlesnake, a timid fox, and some caterpillars. And the scene with the rattlesnake is about as frightening as a Sunday school picnic.
While we’re on the negative aspects of the movie, here was a major one for me. As story progressed, the elements and the physical strain naturally took their toll on Cheryl, and the makeup people managed to cover Witherspoon’s body with plenty of bruises and abrasions, but for some reason they apparently didn’t touch her face. Now it’s a fact that she wore no facial makeup in the movie, but the problem is that she’s blessed with such natural beauty that she doesn’t need makeup to look good. Thus, no matter what hardships Witherspoon’s character endures, her face remains radiantly unscathed.
Now on the positive side, Witherspoon turns in a terrific performance in that she consistently portrays her character’s numerous emotions both during the hiking scenes and in the flashbacks. She’s particularly effective in the scenes with Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. Among the many traumas in Cheryl’s life is that her mother was married to an abusive husband, and these scenes are particularly brutal. But Bobbi is a very strong person, and in the film’s production notes, Dern expressed her admiration for the character.
“I think what moved me most is that through all of the challenges of self-discovery and an abusive marriage and raising children on her own in poverty, she had no sense of martyrdom. There was no victim in her at all. She felt blessed to be alive and to have the chance to redefine life for herself and her children, and to find joy in the unknown. And that is so powerful and inspiring to me as a woman. Just to get close to her through Cheryl’s memories felt like a great privilege.”
Also in the production notes Dern expressed great admiration for Witherspoon’s taking on the role.
“When I heard that she (Witherspoon) read the book and overnight knew she had to make it into a film, I understood how impassioned she was. She knew this was the right moment in her life that she was ready to explore this kind of role and story, and that is really exciting. I was often watching Reese in the freezing cold, carrying the heaviest backpack in the world, totally cut up, bruised, in physical agony, thinking ‘I’ll be over here when you’re ready for a flashback.’ It all looked so exhausting and scary and cold, I don’t know how she did it.”
After seeing the film, I definitely want to read the book because I have a feeling it was better than the movie. However, the film is worth seeing for the fine performances from both Dern and Witherspoon, who already has received a Golden Globe nomination for best actress, and for some truly magnificent scenery. Cheryl Strayed accomplished and amazing feat, but I hope the film did it justice.
When I sat down to watch “Wild,” I fully expected to be totally enthralled by it, but I wasn’t. It was good, and I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t want to sit through it again. Therefore, this one earns the final score of a positive, albeit disappointing, seven. I guess the best way I can say it is that I liked it, but I just wasn’t wild about it.