January 3, 2015


Outdoor adventure movies are the best. Touching the Void, Into the Wild, 127 Hours . . . these are some of my favorite films ever. But Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, may be the only one about a woman's journey. Not a woman in a group or a woman in distress, as part of a thriller or action story. But a woman finding herself in the time-honored tradition of hikers everywhere. At one point in her months-long hike, Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist comes upon another woman hiking the same trail, the first she's seen, and she can't help exclaiming, "You're a woman!" We know how she feels.

I read Strayed's memoir a year or two ago, and the movie is a wonderful adaptation. Strayed made the journey a few years after her mother died, an event that left her drowning in grief and barreling toward self-destruction. What I appreciated about the book was that Strayed didn't offer any particular lesson from being in the wild. Her conclusion was kind of an anti-conclusion. There's no lesson, no shortcut. Just putting one foot in front of the other will eventually get you where you want to be. Watching the movie it was also clear how she just removed herself from the world she was getting worse and worse at functioning in, and she replaced the painful experiences she was putting herself through with a different kind of painful experience—a healthier, more physical pain that actually took her somewhere.

There were two things I missed in the movie, though. One, strangely enough, is that in the book, Strayed mentions masturbation. I wouldn't really expect a mainstream movie to include this, but omitting it was a lost opportunity to be forthright about a kind of stupidly taboo subject.

The second is that the movie doesn't linger over the hiking. We see her hiking for maybe a minute at a time before something happens or she has a flashback. Again, I realize that for a mainstream release, no producer is going to trust the audience to endure more than 60 seconds of quiet. But as a result you never get the feel of what it was like to be on this hike, forging ahead in sometimes numbing boredom and discomfort. The WWII movie The Thin Red Line did a good job of conveying this kind of boredom in the context of war; anyone who saw the movie will remember vividly the endless shots of susurrating grasses waving in the wind as the soldiers wait for action:

And the backpacking movie The Loneliest Planet is almost excruciating in its patience in relaying the feel of a long trip:

Wild could have benefitted from some of this languor. But these are small complaints. The movie's great—well-crafted and moving. And there's something very, very cool about seeing this girl in her plain shorts and tee-shirt, trudging along, especially if you've hiked or backpacked yourself and relate to the constant fight with your feet and the tactics you use to get up with a heavy pack on your back. She's not a type or a decoration or a plot device or a historical fantasy or a comic performer. She's a normal American young woman being normal, and it's not till you see it that you realize how rare this is.

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