"THE LAST THING we need is a bunch of ill-prepared people who aren't thinking clearly and who are trying to find themselves," huffed Donna Saufley, a former board member of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, to the New York Times in 2013. She was talking to Christopher Solomon, whose story "The Call of the Wild on the Pacific Crest Trail" chronicled the invasion of amateur hikers drawn to the trail after reading Wild, Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir. Strayed's book—which charts her 94 grueling days on the trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada, as well as the reasons she decided to hike it—is a moving, harshly beautiful memoir that's by turns an adventure story, a eulogy, a survival challenge, and a feminist manifesto. It's not a surprise that many who read it would, quite literally, try to follow her footsteps—and now that Wild has been turned into a movie, with Reese Witherspoon as Strayed and the book's hard-won truths whittled down to sound bites, it's a good guess the Pacific Coast Trail is about to get even more traffic. Sorry, Donna Saufley!
Given how difficult Strayed's far-ranging book must've been to adapt for the screen, it's a testament to how good Wild: The Movie! is that its biggest detriment might be the fact that Art Alexakis shows up at one point, ink gun in hand, inexplicably playing a tattoo artist. (I half expected director Jean-Marc Vallée to cut away to the client's arm, revealing a tattoo he didn't ask for: "I ♥ EVERCLEER".) Screenwriter Nick Hornby's solution to wrangling the vastness and intimacy of Strayed's book boils down to cramming in a flashback about once every 45 seconds: Wild begins with Reese Witherspoon tearing a bloody toenail off her mangled foot and throwing a hiking boot off a cliff, and from there on, the film jumps back and forth in time. We see Strayed growing up with her brother (Keene McRae) and her mother (Laura Dern); cheating on and splitting up with her husband (Thomas Sadoski); finding comfort with a weary friend (Gaby Hoffmann). It's these relationships—and their attendant pain—that eventually lead to Strayed standing alone on a trailhead in the sun-baked desert, weighed down by a backpack so heavy it's named "Monster," unprepared for the physical and mental challenges to come. Wild is about hiking, but it's also about life, and sex, and drugs, and death.
With nary a chirp, Witherspoon puts in an impressive turn as Strayed—her performance is complicated and insightful, vulnerable and tough at all the right moments. Even more outstanding is Dern, who appears all too fleetingly in flashbacks and visions but haunts Wild's mournful, determined tone. If Dern doesn't get enough screen time, she's not alone: In cramming Wild into two hours, Strayed's long journey feels more like a jaunt than a gauntlet (a jauntlet?), with the transcendent sights of the Pacific Crest Trail relegated to backdrops. Sometimes the film's brevity works to its benefit ("Oh my god," Strayed thinks, shortly after setting out, "what the fuck have I done?"), but often it ties things up with a cleanness the book was careful not to offer ("I'm going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was," Strayed vows). We get plenty of time with the dangers of the trail—threatening men, coiled rattlesnakes, Grateful Dead-loving hippies—but it's hard not to want more when it comes to the trail itself, to have its solitude and splendor sink in for us as they did for Strayed.
I feel like I'm complaining, but asking for more of a movie is hardly a criticism: As a whole, Wild works phenomenally well, and at its best, it's as striking and intense as the book. In other words, it's still Wild—a story that starts with an ill-prepared person who isn't thinking clearly and is trying to find herself, and ends up being about much more.