The true story chronicling Cheryl Strayed (Resse Witherspoon) and her 1,100 mile hike reminds me a lot of the Chris McCandless in the film Into the Wild. Of course there are many differences between the characters—but the nature of hiking in solitude because they both wanted to disappear from society is the same. Cheryl’s journey is beautiful and also ends beautifully, something that was unfortunately absent in Chris’s story.
Much of the reason why Cheryl’s hike and life ends up the way it does is because of her ambition and desire to get better and improve. Her voice-over throughout the film reveals the dark, depressing thoughts of a lonely woman, but underneath all those profanities and anger is someone who is basking in the struggle because she knows the outcome will be better than her life has been in the past few years. Throughout the hike we get to know Cheryl’s sarcastic and sometimes naïve side, but we also learn about all the women she once was. This is, in fact, one of the most important aspects of the film: a person is made up of different layers and Cheryl’s are revealed and change slowly.
We meet the most current Cheryl in the beginning of them film when she’s getting ready for her journey and have to wait for the story to unfold to know who she was before and why her relationships are in shambles. As we are taken back to her past, it’s hard to imagine that the woman hiking all these miles alone, fearing the men along the way that make her feel uncomfortable, is the same person in these flashbacks giving up her body to strangers, or leaving her husband and shooting up heroin with her new companion. And once we get to know the self-destructive Cheryl, it is hard accepting it’s the same woman in other flashbacks who stays up late studying, writing papers, reading Flannery O’Connor, and hanging out with her mother. The same woman who was addicted to drugs, refused therapy or help in anyway, left her family and friends to find herself, is the same mousey haired, innocent woman who had perceptive dreams that no one was going to stand in the way of.
The flashbacks of Cheryl are not featured in order and it’s up to us to place these moments on a timeline, but part of me thinks it doesn’t really matter. Certain people, places, but most events are what makes Cheryl want to leave and change. The time they happened is irrelevant—the importance lies within the three different parts of this woman—and whether or not she will choose one to be again or someone else entirely. Some reviews about Wild complain about the ongoing flashbacks, but to me they are needed to show us just how human Cheryl Strayed is. Like all of us, she is complicated and is affected by her past and worries about her future. She also hikes 1,100 miles mostly alone—so who wouldn’t take that time to reflect? These reflections/flashbacks is also what brings Cheryl to her truest moments. There are only a few times when Cheryl lets her guard down completely and sobs for help—but the vulnerability is important because it allows her to realize her own weaknesses.
The plethora of flashbacks is necessary, but more with her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) could be included. The moments with Paul are out of order, but that’s not why I feel a disconnect between the couple. I want to know when they first fell in love and see that relationship play out a bit on screen and then watch it fall apart. What’s most interesting about the relationship, though, is Cheryl is the one who faults Paul. She whole-heartedly admits her infidelities and mistakes, when typically in films we see these situations reversed: the woman is usually the one left behind. Cheryl’s still left behind and taken over by her own grief, but chooses to find a life again. Except it’s without Paul.
There are other aspects of the film that also could have been sketched clearer, like Cheryl’s heroin addiction, if she’s sober, or when she last used. However, perhaps focusing on Cheryl’s relationship with Paul or heroine would take away from the most essential one in the film: the bond between Cheryl and her mother. Yet, for Cheryl the loss of her mother doesn’t mean dwelling on how much she misses her. Loss turns into the desire to know oneself and fleshing out all those others that live within us that either need to disappear or shine through again.