Review: Reese Witherspoon goes Wild

Mark Reynolds 

The Walk the Line star takes her longest hike in a career-defining role as Cheryl Strayed in this powerful and inspiring biopic.


This is the story of a grueling 1,100-mile, 94-day hike across the Pacific Crest Trail taken by Cheryl Strayed after her life had hit rock bottom. Following the devastating death of her mother aged just 45 from cancer, Strayed began a pitiful sex and heroin binge that put paid to her marriage, and only by testing herself on this trek was she able to rediscover her inner strength and the spiritual drive to move her life along. Her memoir was a huge bestseller in 2012, and before it was published Reese Witherspoon snapped up the film rights, determined to play Strayed on screen.

With a script by Nick Hornby, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (fresh from Dallas Buyers Club), and with an impassioned central performance by Witherspoon, the film tells the epic tale of a woman facing up to the biggest challenge of her life. With grit and determination, battling desert heat, frozen wastelands, feral animals and her worst inner fears, she carves a new path away from her haunted past.

With zero experience of such an epic hike, and hauling a preposterously heavy backpack (known as Monster), we join Strayed from the beginning of the trail, and her backstory is revealed through a series of flashback memories as she crashes through each physical hurdle and pain threshold.

Vallée shot much of the action using hand-held digital cameras that move continuously through 360 degrees, allowing for extreme close-ups of the step-by-step physical exertion, agonies and ecstasies of the walk, then the next moment sweeping back to take in majestic and forbidding vistas. A discordant, stop-start music track adds to the sense of disorientation and gets viewers directly into Strayed’s head.

Laura Dern also excels as mother Bobbi, a feisty and inspiring fighter who has come through an abusive marriage, and in a neat piece of casting Strayed’s daughter Bobbi Jr. plays young Cheryl in the early family scenes. It is the mother-daughter love story at the heart of the film that gave Strayed the will to bring her life back on track, and this is portrayed with tender power that cuts through the tragic and messy events of the past.

Wild is on general release from 16 January.

You might also enjoy:

Wild about Nick Hornby

An interview with the author: A Walk on the Wild Side 

Tiny Beautiful Books