Cheryl Strayed, as played by Reese Witherspoon in Jean-Marc Vallee's "Wild," is, bless the lord, not an easily discernible type.
She's also not the sort we've often encountered on the well-trod paths of female stereotypes in movies. Strayed is a bundle of messy imperfections, as we gradually learn from flashbacks that accumulate throughout her therapeutic journey on the Pacific Crest Trail in "Wild."
She's a serial adulterer, but no villain. (How many times have we seen that, in a woman, in our male-dominated movies?) She's curious, experimental and intrepid to the point of self-destruction. The same traits, though, may also be her salvation.
"I'm the girl that says 'yes' instead of 'no,'" she explains to a friend, with all the positive and negative implications of that statement abundantly clear.
Heavy with grief from the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) to cancer, haunted by remorse for seven years of unfaithful marriage to her sensitive husband (Thomas Sadoski) and shaking off a dark turn into heroin, Strayed sets out to hike 1,100 miles through the Rockies, from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. She's forcing self-renewal not by fleeing her life but by confronting herself in isolation. When she wrestles to strap on her oversized backpack, she's literally weighed down with baggage.
Her background isn't neatly laid out before her hike begins (with scant preparation) in California. But the film - adapted by Nick Hornby from Strayed's 2012 best-selling memoir - fills her journey with montages of memories. The scenes range from drugged-out heroin highs to tender moments with her mom, whose advice to "put yourself in the way of beauty" spurs Strayed's trip. Dern, ever a force of warmth, glows.
On the trail, every encounter holds the threat of danger for a woman alone in the woods, though almost everyone turns out quite chummy.
Much has already been made of Witherspoon's unadorned transformation in "Wild." Yes, she's without makeup here, and as she did in her brief role in "Mud," feels closer, more intimate with the audience. Yet she still possesses an always-in-control fortitude that perhaps makes her a less-than-ideal fit with the looser Strayed. Of Witherspoon's many fine attributes, the stuff of the film's title is not one of them.
The revelation on "Wild" is less Witherspoon than Vallee. The French-Canadian director somehow stayed below the radar even after shepherding his stars in his last film "Dallas Buyers Club" to Oscars. Just as he did in that film, Vallee proves particularly adept at shooting in lived-in environs where he and his actors find a live naturalism.
"Wild" may be a part of the recent trend of trek films (like the recent "Tracks" or "127 Hours"), but its flow between past and present is uniquely organic thanks to Vallee (who shares an editing credit with Martin Pensa under a pseudonym, John Mac McMurphy). The flashbacks come in chunks or just a flash of imagery without sound, triggered by a smell or a song.
The hardest thing to get past in "Wild" - and this is a problem some have had since Thoreau - is that a much-documented solitude can't help but seem artificially conceived. (Strayed isn't seen writing in the film but she does briefly express her literary hopes of being published in Harper's, and she leaves cheesy quotes along the trail.) Such tales come with a prerequisite arc of salvation, the journeys seeming as much for the sake of a book or a movie as genuine reflection.
"Wild" is ultimately unique for its twist, even if it comes by an unfortunately intrusive narration. Strayed's rocky past doesn't need apology if it gets her where she's going.