A Jew in spiritual crisis can pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. A Catholic suffering a loss can walk the camino de santiago in Spain. Muslims have Mecca and evangelicals have Jesus’s footprints in Galilee.
But what is a middle-of-the-road, non-spiritual secularist to do when she hits bottom?
If she’s Cheryl Strayed in the new movie “Wild,” she takes a secular pilgrimage along the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100 mile backpacking trip that begins at the Mexico border and ends at the Canadian line. Tracking the crest of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, the trail is long stretches of empty, lonely wilderness suspended above everyday life in the valleys below.
With a devastated marriage behind her and a grudge against the universe, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) sets out on this journey in a last-ditch quest to regain the life she once planned for herself. She wants to become the woman her beloved mother (Laura Dern) knew she could be.
Like pilgrimage stories dating back to “The Canterbury Tales,” the story is about the journey, never the destination. Cheryl communes with other pilgrims along the way, each with their own reason for trekking the trail. She tarries at way stations and humble houses, accepts and gives hospitality. Some of the best parts of the movie are when she connects with people a white, educated city girl would never expect to: a car full of tattooed, leather-clad toughs, a remote farmer. Most people exceed her expectations, to her surprise.
A Wild Woman with a Past
Her most constant companions, however, are the ghosts she carries with her. As she walks, the audience learns her story. A devastating loss set her on a downward spiral. Her behavior only made it worse. To its credit, the movie does not flinch at showing or excuse her bad behavior. Her deep sorrow at the pain she caused a man she still loves compels her to walk.
Witherspoon pulls off a performance that, in other hands, could be maudlin or overly sentimental. Her pain feels real, her nearly hopeless determination convincing. Cheryl repeats her mantra to herself: “I can quit at any time,” but she knows it is not true. This trail is her last chance.
Dern, too, plays her role well. She travels with Cheryl in memory as a mother who dances through life smiling: a rock, an inspiration, an idealized woman. It’s a little distracting to see Dern play Witherspoon’s mother, with only nine years separating the actors in real life, but the scenes in which they both appear are not the bulk of the movie.
A Secular Pilgrimage Deeper into Self
For a movie about hiking one of the most beautiful parts of the world, the great outdoors is less a part of the film than one would expect. There is an occasional sweeping shot of some spectacular view, a few visits from woodland creatures, but most of the action stays firmly inside Cheryl’s head. This is not a travelogue. Nor is there more than token peril. She’s fighting her demons, not the mountains or its men.
Cheryl’s past is not pretty. Language, drug use, sexual situations including female nudity, and some gore give this film a well-earned R rating.
Turns out, there’s something to the ancient practice of pilgrimage. The forced change of surroundings clears the head. The physical exercise integrates body and soul. Even if Cheryl is just putting one foot in front of the other, at least she is moving forward. Pilgrimages have always been toward something, however, with a deity waiting to be encountered. Cheryl never finds a transcendence beyond the boundaries of her own self. In this secular pilgrimage, it’s an open, confused question if the answer is within our without.
“I needed to find something in myself,” a fellow traveler intones. Then she gestures to the cascading mountains below, “That can fill you up again if you let it.”