Walking Toward Understanding: A Review of the Movie Wild

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“I’m sorry you have to walk a thousand miles just to …” Cheryl Strayed’s ex-husband, Paul, tells her. But “just to” what? Early in Wild, Strayed finishes the sentence for her ex-husband: “Why do I have to walk a thousand miles?”

At mile one, Strayed is not sure why. She’s not even sure at mile eight, twenty-eight, or thirty-six. She lumbers around sharp curves and up and down rugged terrain in order to find the answer, or answers. Strayed’s father was an abusive alcoholic. Her mother, whom she calls “the love of my life,” died of cancer at forty-five. Strayed sought refuge in heroin, and sex with multiple partners, which is what led to the demise of her marriage. She finds the answers to the why part of her hike only at mile one thousand. Strayed hikes toward an understanding of her tumultuous life that seduced her into the woods. Much like how the memoir is structured, the movie depicts both her physical and emotional journeys, the present and past paralleling one another the entire one thousand miles. Of course, we can’t help but lumber along with her.

Wild is not only about Strayed’s yen to find the answers as to why she chose to venture into “wild” territory. It’s about identity, the body, forgiveness. Several tropes represent these themes: the heavy weight of her backpack on her shoulders and back calls to mind the burden of her guilt for past wrongs. The bruises she is left with remind us of the pain of her present, and past, life. Lifting herself up under the weight of the pack, then again when she slips in a river signifies perseverance. The pruning of the pack partway through her trek can be likened to the shedding of her guilt.

The sex scenes reveal Strayed’s confusion: she conflates sex, her body, with worthiness. When a reporter pulls his car over to the side of the road – Strayed is hoping to catch a ride – he interviews her for an article and calls her a hobo. Strayed is quick to clarify that she is not a hobo, that she’s simply hiking the PCT. But she has no place to call home, no anchor, no words to describe who she is. Strayed is not a mother or a wife, labels her mother once assigned to herself.

A series of metaphorical purges (guilt purges) take place: when strayed vomits after a night of drinking with other hikers, when she erases her ex-husband’s name from the sand, and when she finally breaks down sobbing, and says, “I miss you Mom.”

I could share more, but if you have yet to see Wild, or read the book, I don’t want to spoil the ninety-four day hike for you – the one hundred degree afternoons, the sweaty silences, the blue nights and sun-bleached mornings.

So, lace up your hiking boots, strap on your backpack, and join Cheryl Strayed at the head of the PCT.

 

Wild Director: Jean-Marc Vallee. Staring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Gabby Hoffman.

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