Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Wild": review

Cheryl Strayed's novel Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail became an instant classic in 2012. Barely two years later, Reese Witherspoon's production company, Pacific Standard, swooped in and turned Strayed's memoir of a long, therapeutic walk into a movie titled, quite simply, "Wild."

I haven't read Strayed's book, so I don't know whether she documents the entire PCT hike, but the movie ends, bizarrely, short of the end of the PCT: in Cascade Locks, Oregon, at the Bridge of the Gods, as opposed to several hundred miles later in Canada, where the PCT officially terminates.* (Strayed apparently walked 1,100 of the trail's 2,600 miles.) Witherspoon herself plays Strayed in the movie version, providing us with voiceover narration that is, occasionally, barely audible as befits the quiet, contemplative overall mood of the film. The movie glides along two parallel tracks: the PCT walk itself, and a disorderly series of flashbacks to instances in Strayed's life—the moments that had led her onto the trail.

For obvious reasons, I was attracted to this film because its main character's experiences mirrored so many of my own—a fact that Strayed herself has noted in comments she's made about the fan mail she's received from readers of her story: many of our lives are connected by similar events, creating a subtle network of experiences that allow us to relate to each other. I, for one, understand Strayed's initial hardships on the trail: misjudging how much to stuff into her backpack, dealing with the backpacker's equivalent of saddle sores (strap sores and pack sores where her gear made constant, rubbing contact with her body over the long miles), learning commonsense survival skills along the way, with Mother Nature as her teacher. I could relate to the moments where Strayed found herself completely alone, surrounded by a vast, ineffable silence. I smiled at the moments when she seemed to commune with some of the animals she encountered, and also at the moments when she met good folks on the trail. Strayed's mother had died of cancer not long before Cheryl decided to hit the PCT as a young, twenty-something girl. My own experience with a mother's cancer happened after my 600-mile hike was done, but I could relate to Strayed's mindset all the same.

Yet there were aspects of Strayed's story that were unfathomable or inaccessible to me, mostly because Strayed was a twenty-something woman who encountered a number of men on the trail. The movie handles maleness cautiously, in an almost paranoid manner at times: every male is a potential rapist, as the über-feminist line goes. In the end, the movie showed a balance of good men and bad, with only one or two men standing out as truly dangerous.

Another aspect of Strayed's experience that I couldn't relate to was the entire sexual dimension: Strayed's mother had died, and Cheryl had gotten divorced before starting her long hike; she had plunged into a blurry cloud of drugs and sex, and always seemed to have one foot in the local hippie culture. I couldn't relate to any of that, but I understood that the movie was trying to say something about how people handle grief and loss. One of the central lessons of the film is that Strayed takes ownership of her life, not rejecting her mistakes, but instead understanding that she could never have become the woman she is now had she never been through those experiences—the abusive stepfather, the prickly sibling relationship, the acrimonious marriage, the mother/daughter conflict (mostly brought on, the film suggests, by Cheryl herself), the divorce, the drugs and sex with strangers, the pregnancy and abortion.

Luckily for us, Cheryl Strayed is a writer, which means she is, at the very least, capable of a certain level of self-awareness. She could see her life veering off the tracks, see how far she had become separated from her idealistic goals, see how off-balance and off-kilter her world had become. Were it not for this introspective skill, there would be no story, and thus no movie. Many people, similarly self-destructive, find themselves unable to pull out of their nosedive because they can't see their own trajectories, let alone write about them.

Reese Witherspoon does a convincing job in the role of the author/narrator. Laura Dern, as Strayed's seemingly Panglossian mother Bobbi Grey, is nearly saintly in her role. I was tempted to think of Ma Strayed's portrayal as unrealistic in the extreme—an idealized hagiography rooted in Strayed's feelings of remorse about how she had treated her mother—but in the end I found Dern's performance to contain enough inner sadness to convey to us that her character wasn't a relentlessly blind optimist: Bobbi had been through a shitty existence, but she had made the choice to fight through the muck of her life with a strong will and a happy heart, and she was determined to pass only that happiness along to her sullen, rebellious children, who came to appreciate what she had done only when she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.

The movie's cinematography caught much of what is beautiful about the PCT, and since I myself have been to the Bridge of the Gods (see here and here, on my other blog), I was hit by many of my own fond memories from a similar trek. "Wild" reminds us of just how amazingly, gloriously empty much of our country still is.

Cheryl Strayed's story shares elements with any number of long-hike movies, including the similarly titled "Into the Wild" (reviewed here). Unlike "Into the Wild," though, "Wild" ends on an upbeat note. Strayed's voiceover epilogue reassures us that she ended up married, with children, having found something like the truth of herself as she marched those miles. I was a bit surprised by the movie's sudden ending in Cascade Locks, at the Bridge of the Gods, but upon reflection, I think it seemed the right moment for some closure: those final few hundred miles to Canada wouldn't have taught Strayed much more than she'd already learned.

*Since writing this post a couple hours ago, I've visited and read through the preface of Strayed's book. She did indeed stop her hike at Cascade Locks, evidently feeling no need to go farther.


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