It only took the first day of Cheryl Strayed’s 1,000 mile odyssey to make me uncomfortable - the moment when she yanks off her rotting toenail and watches her shoe tumble down a ravine, then tosses its mate furiously after it. I worried about the details - wouldn’t she be in pain hiking without a toenail? why didn’t she bandage her toe to protect it from infection? Did she bring along an extra pair of boots? By day 3, my concern about her foot was eclipsed by my fears about her marching through a scorching desert all day long without a hat - a blue-eyed blonde with ivory skin - wouldn’t she have been burnt toast by day 1? When a director chooses to structure a movie by the calendar, we expect a greater degree of versimilitude; he is telling us “this is how it was day by day - right from Chery’l diary.” So here she was, a woman who had packed about 40 lbs of equipment to carry on her back through open wilderness without even a 6 oz baseball cap. She had a tent, a stove, a pot, chemicals to turn swamp water into potable liquid, dried packaged mush, enough books for a small sidewalk stand in Greenwich Village, enough condoms for a professional, but NO HAT.
Since this incongruity occurs in the opening scenes of Wild, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Cheryl’s past is more frightening than anything she will subsequently encounter in the way of man, beast or a nasty mother nature. This is not a movie about a woman who meets a serial rapist on the Pacific Crest Trail, or about a woman who goes bonkers from sheer loneliness, or about a woman who suffers from gastro-intestinal problems leading to dehydration, or one who breaks her leg trying to cross a waterway without a cell phone to call for help. This is a movie that wants us to believe that a sustained solitary adventure entailing many obstacles and challenges can do more to change addictive and self-destructive behavior than rehab or intensive therapy. My instinct is not to trust this form of panacea. What if Cheryl had been bitten by the rattlesnake? Or if the type of storm that just flooded parts of California had flooded her tent and all her provisions? You can see where my thoughts are going - self-reliance is good but one woman against all the elements is an open invitation for some sort of retribution.
The petite Reese Witherspoon looks sturdy and capable throughout. The flashbacks that fill us in on her backstory and the impetus for her embarking on the marathon hike are moving if not altogether believable. Many otherwise competent people would have indulged their grief with a bout of depression and several gallons of Ben & Jerry instead of heroin and rampant promiscuity. But this isn’t a movie that asks for judgment. It’s a fairy tale of sorts or a Greek myth in which the hero makes a journey proving that he is indeed a hero, able to control his destiny by ingenuity and strength. Cheryl triumphs and even lets us know about her future rewards. I am pleased to inform you that the actress’ skin remains radiantly pale with nary a trace of sunburn or even a smattering of freckles. Perhaps that accounts for my skepticism about the rest of it.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here