Walking into a theater to see the film adaptation of a book you love is always a tense experience.
Will they do it justice? Will they include those parts you love? Will what you see on the screen in any way match the imagined version you have in your head? All of these thoughts flitted through my consciousness as my friend Lauren and I approached Denver’s charming Esquire theater, but what I was truly worried about was whether or not Wild would make me feel the way Cheryl Strayed’s writing made me feel. I will confess here that I have a gigantic literary crush on Strayed (once hopping on an hour-long El ride in Chicago despite a fever and a snowstorm to hear her read) and that perhaps my love of Wild had almost more to do with her writing than the story itself. Strayed has this way of writing that is all at once sharp, witty, heartbreaking, and piercingly beautiful—that touches you at your very core. Would a film be able to capture this in any satisfying way?
The flim begins as the book does, en media res, as Strayed loses one of her hiking boots off the edge of a cliff. From there the viewer is treated with a sprawling, meandering, non-linear portrait of Strayed’s life—her day-to-day struggle on the Pacific Crest Trail and all the harrowing events that led up to it. Director Jean-Marc Vallée doesn’t hold back at all in depicting the darker scenes of Strayed’s past—her abortion, her mother’s abusive relationship with her father, her mother’s death, the shooting of her mother’s horse, Strayed’s heroin experimentation and dalliances with random men—and in some ways these scenes are more powerful on-screen than they were in the book. Dialogue is used sparingly in many of these, allowing the images to speak for themselves. And they do. The looks on the faces of Strayed and her ex-husband Paul when he retrieves her from a heroin den, the corneas already gone from her mother’s eyes when Strayed enters the hospital room to find her dead, a brutal scene in an alleyway with two male customers from the diner Strayed works at. The pain in these scenes latches on to the audience and demands to be felt.
Reese Witherspoon is excellent as Strayed, shifting easily from dark and tormented to tough and determined to tender and vulnerable to open and at peace. This range of emotions and mental states that Witherspoon must portray throughout the film is vast, and she executes a gripping performance throughout. Perhaps one of the most subtle and beautifully acted moments in the entire film comes when Witherspoon is forced to navigate a cruxy set of rocks on the trail alone with her giant pack. She stands before the technical spot for a moment, parsing her options, before climbing up hand over foot, sliding off her pack on top of the rocks, hopping down herself, and then pulling the pack over afterwards onto the ground. The small look of satisfaction on Witherspoon’s face, the kind you have when there is no one there to see you or know what you’ve pulled off, is perfect.
But perhaps stealing the show is Strayed’s mother Bobbi, played by the radiant Laura Dern. In the flashbacks to Strayed’s childhood and the months before Bobbi’s death, Dern is exactly the vibrant, brave, giving mother whose death would be the heartbreak of her daughter’s life. In one scene, a college-aged Strayed sits in her kitchen, watching her mother cook and sing, and demands what she has to be so happy about. Witherspoon ticks off a list of the things that are terrible and sad and hard about their lives, and asks her again how she is singing. Dern pauses, and looks at her a little sadly, not because she has suddenly realized she shouldn’t be singing, but because she is singing for a reason her daughter cannot yet understand. “If there’s one thing I want to teach you,” Bobbi says, “it’s how to find your best self. And hold onto it for dear life.”
For a story with so many things going on—physical pain and emotional pain and self-destruction and despair and frustration and love and grit and perseverance and sadness and forgiveness—the film manages to inject Strayed’s sharp wit every step of the way. Scenes of Strayed struggling to put her oversize pack on as she sets off on the trail and three young hiking companions intentionally getting annoying songs stuck in each other’s heads for fun somehow mesh with scenes of Strayed eating some of her mother’s ashes and getting matching tattoos with her husband Paul right before they sign divorce papers. The weaving of all of these together is seamless, creating a rich, complex cinematic experience.
The film also depicts the myriad of experiences a woman might have while traveling alone. Frightening ones, as in a scene where a lecherous hunter gets a little too close; advantageous ones, when she is treated to coffee and breakfast by a forest ranger who gives nothing to the male campsite inhabitants; and amusing ones—when Strayed hitches a ride and thinks the driver may be reaching for a gun, and he instead pulls out a bag of licorice. But as Strayed states in the book, when explaining why she was happy to meet other hikers on the trail but did not stick with any of them—the whole point of her hike was to do it alone. To walk herself back to the woman her mother thought she was.
The words that seemed to hum under the surface of the entire film, the entire story, are ones that come from a scene in the book that does not appear in the movie—in which Strayed encounters a Texas longhorn bull on the trail and is not sure whether to turn around or to try to keep walking. In the book she says:
“I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.”
But the line that I felt powerfully, though it was never said, that seemed to drive the entire plot, was one from a 2012 interview with Orion magazine about the bull scene:
“Forward is the direction of real life.”
Through heartbreak and grief and loss and struggle and unimaginable, unspeakable pain, Strayed keeps moving forward, one step at a time. As must we all.
In the last scene of the film, Witherspoon walks out onto the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, the end of her hike, and a voiceover plays with Strayed’s original words:
“What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? [It was enough] to believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”
And though I had read them countless times before, there was something about sitting in a theater full of people, feeling everyone in the room go still, so as to not miss a single word, feeling those words reach out and touch everyone all at once—that was nothing short of amazing. I felt them in a way I hadn’t before, when they were written down. Hearing them at full volume, watching Witherspoon stare out at the green water of the river, her eyes wide and bright and ready, was almost like hearing them for the first time. How wild it was, to let it be.