A film that wavers all over the place as to its own merit, in particular the believability and credibility of the central character Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) who embarks on a solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail that runs up the western mountains of America (on average, 200 km in from the Pacific coast) all the way from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Set in 1995, it is actually based on Strayed’s 2012 memoir ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail’, but the beginning shows us Witherspoon rolling around on the floor in a vain attempt to get off the ground with her pack on, forcing us to sincerely question the premise that she is then going to traverse thousands of kilometres on foot by herself. It’s not only preposterous, but dangerous – every year people are killed going on adventures or hill walking by dire luck but tragically sometimes also thanks to their own poor preparation, and the constant undertow to this film is that she has to suffer a bit but her gutsy determination as a woman is all she needs to conquer all and eventually overturn the darkness of her previous life to go on and be fruitful. In reality, it’s amazing she isn’t bird food after a mere week.
A wonderful moment to sum this up is when A MAN advises her to take extra water with her due to the heat. Seeming to take offence at this guy’s arrogance in assuming she doesn’t have a clue she ignores him, and then thinks ‘fuck it’ as she’s walking and needlessly downs her remaining water – sloshing the last of it over her face and hair for no real reason, before realising the tank to get a refill is empty. It is completely impossible to feel sorry for her. At this moment she meets two men one of whom will, naturally since he’s male, suggest he is going to try and rape her, and is only prevented from doing so by the chance return of his mate.
Although it is of course possible the event occurred exactly like this, it also fits the whole sinister agenda throughout the film (the film is directed and written by men I should point out – Jean-Marc Vallée and Nick Hornby respectively), if she had been raped here it would have been a terrible advertisement for walking the P.C.T. but merely suggesting it avoids this whilst adding drama and showing that most men are pigs, and yet she seems more than happy to spread her legs for anyone whom she likes the look of or who is willing to offer her drugs. Indeed, if she isn’t banging them, then they are trying to sexually molest her – even her father is shown to be a villain in flashback by putting his fist up to her face as a child and asking if she wants ‘a knuckle sandwich’ – and that’s it, that is the complete summation of his character, with no mention whatsoever of the stepfather she then had for many years including during the period that her mother (played by Laura Dern) was sick, and it seems they even changed her lung cancer to spinal, no doubt in an effort to make it seem ‘so unfair’ when possibly her mother was a heavy smoker (could be she wasn’t a smoker of course, but then why else change it).
In fact, the film begins to redeem itself a little when we see, during several more fast cut and reasonably irritating flashback sequences, that she was until recently a junkie, albeit one who never really seems to have any withdrawal symptoms, and we think ‘ah, OK, she is an idiot, that explains and justifies her borderline suicidal adventure’, but then it flips things once more, by showing us she simply went off the rails for a while, slutting herself around town and doing heroin in response to her mother passing away, all behind the back of her loving husband. Regarding her travelling escapade she at one point remarks ‘well, it’s more difficult for us women as we have children and parents to look after’ – erm, what?? I have to offer the disclaimer that feminism has had many great and important triumphs for the equality of the sexes, but there is an ever growing strong and nasty postmodern element that has evolved and which seems to grant women equal status in all things with the one hand, and then with the other it absolves women from responsibility for their own actions – indeed, it was recently announced on the BBC that there are plans in the works for no less than fifty percent of female prisoners in the UK to be released, because …. they’re female!!!
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – if they have come up with a better, more progressive system than imprisonment to rehabilitate offenders then great, but it should damn well be applied to men and women for Christ’s sake, and this film buys in to that whole sexist garbage by showing the central character wonder, as she begins to resuscitate her life, that maybe all the random sex and drugs and all the pain she caused her friends and family was perhaps in the end a good thing because it led her to where she is now – the complete and utter avoidance of any accountability for her actions. That’s like saying the Holocaust and the Second World War was a good thing because we got lots of new technology and the United Nations out of it. Witherspoon is good in the role for what it is, and she’s been nominated at the Academy Awards but I really hope she doesn’t get the Oscar, you can’t avoid the feeling that it’s due to who she is and a ‘triumphant leading female role’ – which when you look at in detail it really isn’t, although she does get her tits out a few times and the Academy does seem to love that.
It’s also true to say that without the seemingly uncredited help of several males in the film Cheryl would have perished many times over – including before the trek as it’s her then poor husband, who could easily have been riddled by all manner of venereal disease by this point, that forcibly rescues her from the drug dens she was frequenting. It wouldn’t be in the least surprising if she gave him a hard time about it for ‘interfering’, or ‘not wanting her to have a good time’ – reportedly Witherspoon’s production company Pacific Standard optioned this for film months before the book was even published, perhaps suggesting familiarity with Strayed’s writing or, rather more cynically, opportunism for the kind of story that can easily be spun into awards bait in a market that rarely stops to question the validity of anything with a ‘strong female lead’. Maybe the real story is an inspiring and fascinating one, but the Devil is in the detail and decent acting and cinematography are not enough to mask the many faults in this overtly pernicious adaptation.