I felt a little frisson of dread when I heard that Wild was going to be made into a movie. How could Cheryl Strayed’s incandescent memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail possibly translate to the screen? Ravaged by her mother’s death, Strayed had embarked on the 1,100-mile trek almost impulsively, and her tale is largely internal, ”a primal grab for a cure, for the thread of my life that had been severed,” she writes. ”I could feel it unspooling behind me—the old thread I’d lost, the new one I was spinning—as I hiked.”
I shouldn’t have worried. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) has made a movie that adheres to Strayed’s tale in almost every way. That’s not always a good thing, by the way—faithfulness often translates into leadenness. Vallée has done the opposite, delivering a film that is both graceful and gutting. Wild, which was adapted by novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby, is even set up like Strayed’s book, with her story slowly emerging in layer upon layer of flashbacks as she walks. Witherspoon ditches her sunny persona before she laces up her first mountain boot and plays Cheryl with real grit, drawing you in from the opening scene, in which she rips off a battered toenail. There’s been much talk recently of the 2014 Reese-aissance; Wild is all the proof you need that Witherspoon has indeed found creative rejuvenation.
Good adaptations always add another dimension to a beloved book, or make you see something you’d missed while you were reading. In this case, it’s a fuller sense of Strayed herself, thanks to the way Vallée manages to convey her howling, bottomless-seeming grief. When you see the depth of love between Cheryl and her mom (radiantly portrayed by Laura Dern in a series of stunning scenes), you understand how she became so unmoored. The visceral scenes that follow of her promiscuity, heroin use, and crumbling marriage all make a terrible sort of sense. This isn’t a journey of redemption—it’s one of salvation.
Wild isn’t a perfect film. The ending is abrupt: When the hike’s over, so is the movie. And some of the interior monologues run on a bit. But those are small quibbles. Vallée has taken a contemplative book where, frankly, very little happens and transformed it into a gut-punching drama. A?