For Litro magazine
1. Remembering Wild is a little like the experience of Wild itself.
2. If you know what Wild is about, skip to paragraph six.
3. “To write this book, I relied upon my personal journals, researched facts when I could, consulted with several of the people who appear in the book, and called upon my own memory of these events and this time of my life.” So begins the author’s note of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, significant considering the film that it’s spawned. Go to five.
4. First, it should be said, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) has the advantage of a biographically accurate name: “Cheryl strayed.” In oh so many ways, Cheryl strayed. Now she hikes alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, while trailing behind her is the persistent wraith of regret – back then, before we knew her as just a determined girl with an oversized backpack, Cheryl’s clawing for an emotional reprieve had led her down paths to addiction, and all the things addiction brings. Go to three.
5. Her closest companions now, on a route that weaves through 1,100 miles of mountains and lowlands, rather than the menacing strangers and occasional oddballs she encounters, are the aforementioned rucksack, a few books, and those sharpened memories. We discover a difficult childhood followed by the death of her mother — then the marriage that’s crumbled under the weight of Cheryl’s self-destructive behaviour. Go to 10.
6. Wild plays like a 127 Hours minus the mountain biking (thankfully) and a heap more boning (not of the sawn variety). Now paragraph eight.
7. The book’s prologue is where its adaptation, in earnest, begins. But first the opening motif: it’s these debauched scenes of poison-fuelled nights and too-bright dawns mixed now with all that outdoorsy natural beauty that provide for Cheryl a chance to rise again. Go to the first paragraph.
8. That spirit of free association brings a snow-browed mountain fox, (or it may have been an owl); a black dress unzipped for doggy-style; needles; the haunted echo of Paul Simon’s yelp across the mountains. A plush, green valley. Desert track. Wild is all about immersion – we are to discover and feel what Cheryl feels when she discovers that, somehow, “putting yourself in the way of beauty” might be an answer. And however she gets there, we’re with her from the first drop of sweat in the arid desert to the verdant mountains of Washington state. Paragraph three.
9. Director/editor Jean-Marc Vallée, writer Nick Hornby and cinematographer Yves Belanger trade the traditional voiceover for delicately handled internal monologue. Tunes replay in Cheryl’s head as she hums and sings (most notably, Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’), sometimes eerily, other times joyfully. Go to 12.
10. Those songs trip memory montages – and those memories are generally pretty regrettable. But as Cheryl makes her way those memories snowball not into revelations or epiphanies, but an incremental overcoming. Go to nine.
11. The film plays down Cheryl’s obvious writerly ambition – instead it’s hinted at with a few choice narrative-advancing quotes (Patti Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example) which Cheryl leaves in rain-proof guestbooks along the trail. Words have helped her better handle those demons. And although we never see her write more than a handful of quotes, the real Cheryl assiduously kept journals on her journey. Writing is a connection too with her lost mother, who returned to finish high school after breaking out of an abusive relationship with Cheryl’s father. Literature divided them while alive — her mother confesses her guilty pleasure James A. Michener (of whom a young Cheryl disapproves) — and now writing connects them again. Go to seven.
12. But Cheryl comes to accept these things have come to pass. The final product is an unpretentious, empathetic exploration of Cheryl’s psychic landscape that leaves judgment largely aside. Wild achieves with each of its neat devices a realistic, naturalistic evocation of real operating memory. It’s both linear and non-linear, playful, menacing, half-formed, complete, repetitive, exhausting, and exhilirating – a lot like something else you and I know. (Go to 11.)