Last year, director Jean-Marc Vallée directed Matthew McConaughey into a Best Actor Oscar for his uncharacteristic role in Dallas Buyers Club. This year, he threatens to repeat that success on the Actress side with his direction of Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in the film adaptation of her 2012 memoir. That work, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a nonfiction best-seller, and screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) has created a minimalist script that allows the story to enfold visually and with a variety of uninterpreted flashbacks that give the audience the experience of interpreting these events themselves. It is a retelling appropriate to the medium and one that should not disappoint fans of the book.
This is a beautiful film visually. In a season dominated by the spectacle of CGI effects in films like The Hobbit and Exodus, it is not only beautiful, but also refreshing to drink in the natural glories of desert, mountain and forest along the Pacific Crest Trail. Yves Bélanger, who was Vallée’s cinematographer on Dallas Buyers Club, makes the most of his opportunities to give us the visual experience of walking that trail ourselves.
For the physical and emotional experience of that hike, we need to rely on Witherspoon, who has as much screen time, and a good deal more dialogue, than Robert Redford had in last year’s All Is Lost. That film is the one that comes to mind immediately when considering what this one is like: in both cases, the protagonist takes on a demanding physical and emotional challenge—in Redford’s case a solo sailing venture, in Witherspoon’s, a 1,100 mile solo hike through unforgiving landscape and elements. In both cases the ordeal is a self-imposed challenge with the goal of exorcising the demons of their lives, to restore their sense of self, in a sense to create themselves anew in the wake of personal tragedy and dissolution of self.
There is a good deal of humor in Witherspoon’s initial halting steps on the trail, dogged as they are by inexperience and a kind of uninformed bravado. She has bought boots that are too tight, ends up losing them down the side of a mountain as she removes the bloody toenails that have resulted from her hiking in them. She duct tapes some sandals to her feet and presses on. Of course, she has also over-packed and carries a backpack that seems to weigh more than she does, which she has to go through nearly slapstick contortions to lift. It isn’t until she reaches her first pit stop, and is laughed at by other hikers for the “monster” she has on her back, that one veteran hiker helps her lighten her load by throwing out those things she has no real need of. It is fairly obvious that the huge pack serves as a symbol of the emotional “baggage” she is carrying. There is much that she needs to let go of in order to strip away the veneer of her life to reach the raw self that needs redeeming. Furthermore, we discover as the film moves on, Cheryl Strayed also has crippling burdens of guilt and grief that need somehow to be expiated. That monster pack has got to get lighter.
The things we learn about Cheryl in the film’s early scenes do little to endear her to the audience. She seems a self-indulgent, pampered, immature twenty-something know-it-all who has let her life spiral out of control because of her inability to govern her impulses. Early flashbacks of scenes with her mother (Laura Dern) portray her as a condescending brat who can’t appreciate the gift of the mother she has. She has committed serial adultery against her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), who seems uncommonly understanding and forgiving in the brief scenes in which he appears, but whom she also fails to appreciate and who apparently has no idea what Cheryl needs or why she does what she does (he still seems puzzled as he speaks to her on the phone from her former home in Minnesota on the eve of her trek). At least one of the men she has cavorted with introduced her to heroin, and that addiction is another of the profound burdens in her symbolic backpack. Her college friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) sees the quagmire Cheryl is sliding into and tries to intercede, but it is not enough.
One of the repeated motifs of Cheryl’s hike treats her relationships with men. She has clearly been in some very unhealthy ones prior to this trek, and the fact that she is a single woman alone on a hike during which she meets men of all sorts on the trail opens her to a variety of strange encounters that prove difficult for her to read. These interactions vary from her skittish meeting with an older rancher early in the film, where she is in some fear about what he has in mind when he invites her to his home for dinner, to a rather more sinister encounter with a pair of hunters who seem to be hunting for more than deer, to an absurdist exchange with a motorist who she thinks is stopping to help her but turns out to be a freelance writer who wants to interview her as a “female hobo.” There is some growing confidence later on the hike when she contemplates what is depicted as a much healthier romantic encounter with a man she meets further along the trail.
But Cheryl’s problems with men are only a symptom of her much deeper emotional scars, which turn out to be related to her mother, as we discover in snippets through more flashbacks. Cheryl’s mother, we find, had her own difficulties in life, including trying to raise her children with a husband who abused them, and then leaving him to raise them alone in poverty. Somewhat to Cheryl’s annoyance her mother retained a positive outlook toward life as something to find joy and happiness in, something she seems to have wanted—and failed—to pass on to Cheryl. Cheryl’s condescension toward and lack of appreciation for her mother (Cheryl was, of course, far more intelligent; just ask her) are two of the burdens weighing on her. Heaviest, though, is the burden (spoiler alert, I suppose) of her mother’s early death—the last and worst of life’s blows to Laura Dern’s poor character. We find it was this untimely passing that sent Cheryl into her tailspin, and the unreconciled issues that she had with her mother put a weight of guilt upon her that it is now impossible to shed because the woman is no more. The film skips Cheryl’s dreams of having killed her mother that appear in the book, but a sense of that guilt is conveyed in a flashback in which her mother’s horse needs to be put down. Cheryl’s realizing that her mother was the love of her life is a turning point in the film, and in her life.
The weight of all this, and the success of the film, is put squarely on Witherspoon’s shoulders. It turns out she is up to the task. She plays the role of the damaged woman seeking by sheer force of will and physical strength, coupled with months spent alone at one with the universe, with subtlety, wit, honesty and good humor. In this she has Mom, in the form of Laura Dern, providing brilliant and sympathetic support in carrying that weight. Witherspoon has already received a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors’ Guild nomination for Best Actress for 2014, and an Oscar nod seems inevitable. I hope that Dern is remembered as well for her memorable supporting role. I have just one gripe: why would a woman hiking for three months across a desert and mountains not bring sunglasses and a hat to wear along the way? I suppose the close-ups of Reese wouldn’t have been as dramatic, but that’s just silly.
Skip all the movies that are getting the big hype this holiday season and opt for this little movie that is actually really good. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this little gem of a film.