“Wild” begins with Cheryl Strayed (played with great physicality by Reese Witherspoon), furiously hurling one shoe and then the other shoe down from a cliff. Naively, Strayed bought her hiking boots a size too small, and the constraint damaged her feet well into her journey, a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Here, “Wild” succinctly lays out the full constitution of the film’s protagonist: She’s an angry young woman (one of many kinds of people either seen too little or positioned exclusively for others to deride in Hollywood films) who reacts to failure with self-flagellation and rage.
The movie is based on the 2012 travel memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” which is a detailed meditation on the politics of memory and a complex character sketch. “Wild,” however, despite a vivid performance by its lead, never entirely grasps the source material or its meaning. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”) employs a relatively simple flashback construct, which shows the audience Strayed’s life before the hike and turns her journey into a series of and alternately hazy and manic montages. Prior to embarking, Strayed lost Bobbi, her beloved mother (Laura Dern), to an aggressive form of cancer and her husband (Thomas Sadoski) to the emotional fallout from her subsequent affairs and heroin addiction. Bobbi is an unwaveringly loving mother who flees an alcoholic, physically abusive husband to raise her two children alone; she serves as a sort of beleaguered Madonna to the “whore” label assigned to Witherspoon’s troubled character. And Strayed is a well-read, self-aware feminist (she graduated magna cum laude from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis with a B.A. in both English and women’s studies) who consciously becomes the protagonist of her own life on her own terms.
But Vallée utilizes constant voiceover to communicate Strayed’s feelings while she hikes alone through the wilderness. This distracts from Witherspoon’s skill at conveying emotion with single looks, and does a disservice to the contemplative nature of Strayed’s development, not to mention her solitary hike. So, Strayed’s story becomes a series of epiphanies with all its complexities explained in obvious detail.
And men play an uncomfortable, far-too-active role in the story. “Wild” undermines Strayed’s feminist vision quest by allowing experiences with men to bookend her notion of becoming the woman her mother wanted her to be. Men tell the audience what they ultimately should think of Strayed (that she has grown) and that’s bullshit. Strayed, the character, doesn’t need men praising her journey because that is not the point. Not to mention, it’s a complex journey: Strayed has nowhere to go other than somewhere else and no one else to become other than her autonomous self.
And so “growth” as illustrated here is too cleanly delivered and pat. Like most travel films, “Wild” provides convenient staging for her progression: Strayed carries literal baggage that symbolizes her emotional struggle; she encounters inevitable difficulties while facing the heightened tension of a generally time-sensitive goal; and, at the end of her journey, she provides a catharsis packaged as neatly as the bigger shoes she eventually puts on after she throws away that one-size-too-small pair in the first scene.
Fortunately, Witherspoon delivers an impressively frayed performance within a film that drifts towards cliché and too often subverts its own intentions by sticking to a Screenwriting 101 formula. In the quieter moments of “Wild,” however, Witherspoon simultaneously embodies joy, fear, and desire in every movement and expression and the result is electric, even as her character grows weary. Witherspoon’s complexity is singular in a film too timid to engage it.