Recently I saw Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, and although at first it seems to be a thinly veiled attempt at an Oscar grab, it ultimately provides a profound outlook into the personal meanings of identity and purpose. Reese Witherspoon, as Cheryl Strayed, embarks on a soul-searching expedition on the Pacific Crest Trail, rising from personal pain and loss, guided by her own determination, and inklings of her greater self. Her story is immensely unlike that of the average and stereotypical ‘gap year;’ a tale we know all too well to consist of taking selfies with village children or getting drunk in eight countries within the span of seventy two hours, all pursued in a vain attempt to ‘find oneself’. No, the film rather calls into the question the purpose of our everyday lives and actions, and seemingly asks; ‘what is it all for?’
Strayed lives up to her name as she travels through her experiences as a rogue. The film utilizes several cinematic clues to hint at her animalistic nature. From her wandering name, to her brief conversations with coyotes, she proves herself to be a lone ranger. Her journey is mainly one of solitary reflection, as she only has her intuition for companionship. Her introspective being is itself personified in the lingering presence of a lonely fox (which allows for the current shortcomings of CGI reality, I guess, because it is supposed to be imaginary). When you watch this film, you yourself walk alongside Cheryl, and as you follow, step-by-step, hundredth mile by hundredth mile, you too will find yourself wandering in your own mind, about where you are in your own world, and what exactly it is that drives you to take the next step. You too will become so transfixed by the moment, and forget that she’s hiking through tumultuous terrain of varying climatic conditions, and only once you see physical snow on the ground, would you agree that she maybe should put some pants on, instead of gallivanting on in her Californian shorts.
Nonetheless, this exposition of wilderness also cuts across the confines of humanity, and what it means to live in a civilized world. Is Cheryl a woman because she wears a specific and flattering shade of lipstick? Or because she responds to the advances of callers, of varying scores on the ‘gentlemen scale’? Or does she achieve the power of her identity and womanhood through drawing inspiration from the people and pain of her past? On her journey, Strayed faces continuous physical pain, severe exposure to the elements, both of the outdoor variety, and those of her own sanity. In addition, she faces the implications of a woman alone in the wilderness, and the position men hold, even strangers, in her immediate security.
Yet still she does this. She runs from the terrifying ghosts of her past, in a quest for survival into her future, and for ultimate independence within herself. Although she has been crippled by the tormenting memories of her past traumas and subsequent dark history, she is driven by her recollections of happiness and good. She strives and learns to become the woman she wants to be. She refuses to settle for the hollowness and cruel banality of the life and destiny that had fallen upon her shoulders. It may have offered glimpses of temporary joy, but only with her escape of mundane misery, was her shell of a body finally filled. To find beauty she “put herself in the way of” it. So, if you want two hours of inspiration to help you tackle that three-month hike you plan to start next weekend, you should probably see this film.
Just try not to get lost in the wilderness of it all.