Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is many things, but she is certainly not delusional. A mile into her self-imposed hiking exile onto the Pacific Crest Trail, she thinks of quitting. She thinks of quitting on the second mile. And the third. Nature is cruel and in attempting to transverse its rocky mountains and vast plains she does not make the mistake of assuming she could dominate the terrain. It’s a departure in character from that of similar-minded man-versus-nature films, where the figurative man is a literal one, such as Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild or Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Both of those men, white men, cockily exercise privilege over the landscape, only to find themselves dead or permanently scathed. No, Cheryl Strayed lived to tell her story, publishing her memoirs that detail the trials and tribulations that prompted the hike. It’s not a warm story, where death and abuse are the inescapable demons for her to overcome. Yet despite the gender and narrative departures found in Strayed’s source material, one has to wonder why and how it could be translated into something so irrevocably trite.
Jean-Marc Vallée, director of Dallas Buyers Club, is partly to blame. It’s a remarkable coincidence to consider the sort of transformation arch that both Cheryl Strayed and Dallas Buyers Club’s Ron Woodroof go through, but the two seem to face maternal death and AIDS with a similar measure of existential dread, descending into a world of drugs and debauchery in order to ease the pain. While these vices reflect the true-to-life plights of its characters, it’s disheartening to see Vallée shoot these sequences in the same way: quick cuts, tight close-ups, over-saturated colors indicating highs, poorly-lit bedside reservations with light emanating just enough to highlight the guilt on its subject’s face. It’s just so typical.
There’s a gender polemic at play in Wild that’s particularly interesting to delve into, if only because of what it offers is not especially well-thought-out. Anyone who watched the massive viral video of a young woman walking the streets of New York City, getting catcalled, will see a similar level of malaise in Wild. Contextually shifting the catcalls to the wilderness argues for the biological inescapability of male privilege. It’s an ugly reality but one would have to argue that perhaps Strayed finds nothing particularly valuable in men at all. Her encounters with men are often opportunities to exploit their weaknesses. When, later in the film, she is given the moniker of “Queen of the PCT” by a group of white male hikers, she rejects the notion, despite the social advantages that it has afforded her. While an initial encounter with a farmer subverts expectations, subsequent encounters reinforce an ugly gender divide that lacks insight and only seems to reinforce stereotype - an egregious scene with Breaking Bad’s Skinny Pete being a prime offender.
Despite Vallée’s disservice to the depth of the material, it’s notable to mention that Witherspoon submits a performance of convincing grit. Stripped of vanity, this is a performance that excels when she’s merely wandering the forestry in solitude. While Vallée utilizes what’s essentially a roulette of flashbacks to reinforce Strayed’s haunted past, it’s Witherspoon who makes this arbitrary device seem palpable. No one else, including Laura Dern as Strayed’s cancer-afflicted mother, is given much else to work with.
One can’t shake off the arbitrary-ness of it all, along with the mounting evidence supporting this enterprise as a wholly white experience. Consider that the three films, Into the Wild, 127 Hours, and Wild, are based on true stories strictly from a white perspective. When Strayed enters the hippie commune of a Portland community, she has the means of purchasing a restaurant burger and room. Having had a life previously dedicated to extensive drug, the fact that she has the considerable means to even embark on this journey, let alone finance these accommodations (including a hiking bag that serves to symbolize her material opulence) leaves me to consider the privilege that comes with finding yourself.