Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) standing on the edge of a cliff. She has been hiking for days and, because her hiking boots are too small, she’s limping and in a great deal of pain. She takes off a boot and a sock and stares at her bloody big toe. With trembling fingers, she removes what is left of her big toenail. And then, she throws her boot over the edge of the cliff while screaming, “FUCK YOU!”
And, from that moment, Wild had me.
For the next two hours, I sat there and I was absolutely enthralled as Cheryl, an aspiring writer and a recovering drug addict who was still struggling to come to terms with the death of her mother (played, in heart-breaking flashbacks, by Laura Dern), hiked her way from the Mexican border up to the Canadian border. I watched as she learned how to survive in the wilderness, how she cautiously learned to trust some of her fellow hikers, and as she dealt with sexist rangers and creepy hunters.
And there were a lot of reasons why Wild held me so enthralled. There was Reese Witherspoon’s performance, for one thing. Reese is on screen during every minute of Wild and, for a lot of that time, she’s alone with her thoughts and her emotions. She gives an amazingly focused performance, one that should regain her some of the respect that she sacrificed by appearing in movies like This Means War and publicly asking, “Do you know who I am?” Both the film and Reese’s performance resist the temptation to idealize Cheryl. Instead, both the film and the performance feel real and because Cheryl comes across as a real person (flaws and all), it makes her journey and her achievement all the more powerful.
I couldn’t help but relate to Cheryl. Like her, I’m an aspiring writer. Like her, I’m still learning how to deal with the loss of my mom. Like her, I have trust issues. Like her, I am sometimes too stubborn for my own good. Like her, I like to leave quotes in guest books. Like her, I always pack a few paperbacks before I go on a trip and I like to write in my journal. Like Cheryl, I’m a survivor and I’m proud of it.
Unlike Cheryl, however, I’ve never gone hiking and I doubt if I ever will. As much as I loved Wild (and it’s definitely one of my favorite films of 2014), it didn’t leave me with any great desire to go on a hike. That’s largely because of that first scene. When Cheryl threw away her boots and screamed, I thought to myself, “That would so be me.” Of course, the difference is that Cheryl did that after hiking for a month. I would probably end up doing that after the 2nd day. And then I’d turn around, go back home, and spend the weekend watching Netflix.
But here’s the thing: Wild is not really about hiking. Wild is about the journey. What’s important is not that Cheryl hiked but that Cheryl accomplished what she set out to do. No matter how difficult it got, no matter how many people told her she should give up, Cheryl walked from Mexico to Canada. By the end of the film, I felt like, if Cheryl could do that even with boots that were too small, than there was nothing that I could not do.
As a result, Wild is not only one of the best films of 2014.
It’s the most empowering as well.