“Wild” is the second such movie in less than three months. The Australian movie “Tracks” starring Mia Wasikowska, like “Wild,” told a true-life tale about one such female journey. This was an arduous yet hypnotic traversal of the Outback in 1975 from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, a journey through a punishing desert of about 1,700 miles.
“Wild,” which stars Reese Witherspoon, follows the bizarre, sometimes even comic trek of another determined woman to conquer the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the mountains in the Oregon-Washington border in 1995. Each movie is based on the woman’s memoir of her trip.
One might even argue the current release “The Homesman,” where Hilary Swank undertakes a harrowing journey in the 1855 Nebraska Territory albeit in the company of a non-account male, fits into this Women in the Wilderness theme.
The only male counterpart to these cinematic journeys is Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” and this true-life tale perhaps made it to the screen because of its tragic outcome.
I guess the obvious point is that unaccompanied women don’t usually venture into the wilderness alone. From the Stone Age, men have wandered here and there in search of food, shelter, God and adventure. So no big deal when a guy goes out for a hike, even if it does last a year or two.
A woman must not only battle the elements but the myth of female fragility and the social disapproval of tomboy excess. She must be tougher, hardier and more ruthlessly singleminded than any male hiker.
What one also gains from a female traverse is a kind of spiritual newness. The sky, terrain, dangers and beauties are transformed. You see it as if for the first time.
While you might follow along with a male adventurer, you don’t immediately identify with him: He’s just a guy doing a guy-thing. A woman is a true pioneer, a seeker and a supplicant, going into the woods in order to find her way out of the woods.
Where these two memoirs diverge is the mental state of the hiker. Australia’s Robyn Davidson was a city-bred woman who decided to take a long walkabout simply because she wanted to: She was out to prove nothing to herself or anyone else.
For Cheryl Strayed, the PCT hike feels like another in a series of bad decisions she’s made in her still young life. A downward spiral following her mother’s illness takes her through a failed marriage, heroin addiction, bad waitressing jobs and numerous and meaningless sexual encounters.
She has planned not at all for this journey and indeed has packed so much senseless gear into her backpack she can barely lift it much less stand upright. So where one begins in slight awe of Robyn’s adventure, you feel somewhat exasperated with Cheryl walking down a trail without a clue what to expect or how to plan.
Based on her 2012 memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail,” the film is written and directed by two very talented men, British screenwriter Nick Hornsby (“About a Boy,” “An Education”) and French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (“The Dallas Buyers Club”).
The movie begins at the journey’s midpoint, then flashes back to the beginning. As the trip unfolds, Cheryl has plenty of time to think back on her turbulent life. The key point of contact is her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern.
This is the movie’s one great relationship. Cheryl leans heavily on the life-force that is her mother, yet she is often at complete odds with mom’s approach to life. Where Cheryl sees a life of regrets and bad choices, her mother thinks the exact opposite. If she hadn’t married that “drunk abusing” husband, how would she have Cheryl?
Also figuring prominently in the life that ever so slowly flashes before her eyes is her conflicted husband (Thomas Sadoski) and supportive though often disapproving friend (Gaby Hoffmann). Cheryl may have hit the “pause” button on her life to take the PCT hike, but that life continues to play out for her as she deconstructs it and tries to put it back together in a way that makes sense.
Only it never does. The strenuous journey and that damn backpack weighs on her with such force that while she can see the error of her past ways, the key thing is to make it to the next camp site and survive predators, be they animals or in one instance humans. At one point she hikes in boots made entirely of duct tape.
The journey is not necessarily toward a great epiphany but to a clearer sense of self and priorities. The journey swamps her former life, making it seem, weirdly, a thing less hard than the road she is now on.
What if, she tells herself, the things everyone thought she shouldn’t have done “is what also got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
Witherspoon,who produced the film through her company Pacific Standard, has an instinct for the kinds of roles that suit her and it doesn’t fail her here. Strong-willed yet deeply flawed, her Cheryl is not only her own worst enemy but also own best friend.
She possesses a strong streak of self-destruction yet an instinct for self-preservation as well. A walking contradiction, she wills herself a happy ending, not because she deserves it or because “it is written,” rather because she is a survivalist. She sees the damn thing through, refusing to cheat the experience when others find perfectly rational reasons to quit.
The actress captures all the hardship and comedy within this role and the same goes for Dern’s heroic performance. The actresses’ age ranges (nine years apart) make them more like sisters than mother-daughter and that works out just fine for the movie. They’re pals and best friends so the mother’s tragic illness devastates the daughter.
Other figures, on the trail and from the past, swim in and out of her consciousness, including a brother who won’t accept his mother’s diagnosis, and people on the PCT who have heard about her by reputation, as that girl with the monster backpack.
The experience of “Wild” differs from “Tracks” in that the film provokes and ponders while the latter enthralls. In the end, these are two very different journeys. Yet journeys the moviegoer of 2014 can thrill too equally.
Opens: December 5, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Fox Searchlight, Pacific Standard
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Nick Eversman, Mo McRae
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby
Based on the book by: Cheryl Strayed
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, Bill Pohlad, Reese Witherspoon
Executive producers: Nick Hornby, Nathan Ross, Bergen Swanson
Director of photography: Yves Belanger
Production designer: John Paino
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning
Editor: Martin Pensa
R rating, 115 minutes