Take a Hike
by Glenn Lovell
Here I go expecting a gripping survival number on the order of “127 Hours” or “Touching the Void,” and what do I find? A sloggy, New Age-y variant on “Eat Pray Love.” Instead of survival tips, we get daisy-chain aphorisms on the importance of being centered and forgiving yourself so you can grow into the person you were always meant to be.
Sheese. I could have gone to Barnes & Noble’s self-help section for that.
“Wild,” starring a studiously solemn Reese Witherspoon, is no “Into the Wild.”
This adaptation of the Cheryl Strayed tell-all, developed by Witherspoon’s production company and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), recounts how, upon losing her mother to cancer, Minneapolis’s Strayed strayed into crack houses and indiscriminate sex. As a sort of tribute to Mom ‒ and a means of making a good act of contrition ‒ Cheryl hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which wends from southern California to the Washington-Canada border.
“I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,” vows Strayed.
This feature-length selfie is filled with such tortured, quasi-spiritual sentiments, delivered straight-faced by Witherspoon in dialogue and voiceover.
This would have been fine if Vallée had allowed the spectacular visuals to speak for themselves, as Werner Herzog often does in documentaries like “Grizzly Man.” It’s statement enough to observe the protagonist in extreme long shot, inching ant-like across valley floors, dwarfed by canyons and snow-crusted mountains. We could certainly have done without the flashbacks chronicling life with an abusive father and free-spirited mother (Laura Dern as every stereotypical Earth mother).
En route, Strayed happens upon park rangers, hunters, even a reporter for “Hobo Times.” Almost to a one these strangers are creepy, prying males, which reinforces everything she already knew about the worthlessness of the opposite sex. (An exception: her malleable doormat husband, played by the appropriately named Thomas Sadoski.)
Eventually, after three months on the trail, Strayed falls to her knees sobbing. Her light-bulb epiphany: “I was lost in the wilderness of my guilt” and needed to find “my way out of the woods.”
Witherspoon the actor obviously wanted to try something new here. For that she deserves props. Unfortunately, she was not well-served by Witherspoon the producer, who weighted down her character with too many of the source memoir’s self-serving sermonettes. Little wonder she often buckles under the strain; such baggage is about as useful on the trail as a lifetime subscription to Oprah’s “O” magazine.
WILD ✮✮ With Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; scripted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed memoir. 115 min. Rated R (for profanity, sex, drug use)
Lovell, former movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.