Reviewed by Alicia Glass
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Review Rating: 7
Based on a true story, Cheryl Strayed decides that walking the entire Pacific Coast Trail alone, armed with her wits and gear, will straighten out what’s left of the mess of her life.
Sooo many F-bombs – “wtf am I doing here?”, “wtf have I done to myself?” “F* youuu!” That last one happens quite often and isn’t so much directed at any one person, but it seems, at the world at large and at Cheryl’s (Reese Witherspoon) own mental demons. What mental demons, you ask? First off, and perhaps most importantly, is the death of her beloved and forever optimistic mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). All her life Cheryl listened to the beloved wisdom of her mother, who endured an abusive husband and returning to school when Cheryl was still there, to being rather suddenly stricken with cancer that wouldn’t allow her to ride her favorite horse anymore, to rather abrupt death merely a month after diagnosis. From here, Cheryl simply crumples into tissue paper, leaving her devastated brother to fend for himself while she dives into heroin and, ignoring her husband entirely, sleeps with anything male that holds still long enough. It’s only after telling a friend of hers that Cheryl thinks she’s pregnant in the midst of a depressing snowstorm, that Cheryl sees a book about the PCT in a store and fixates on walking the trail herself.
Cheryl doesn’t seem to have reckoned the sheer physical cost of it all, she keeps marveling at the bruises her overpacked gear setup leaves everywhere, along with yes those damned boots, and everything else. Some places on the trail have snow, others are simply sweltering, and Cheryl learns all too quickly that you can’t ever just say “F* it!” and down the last of your water, knowing there’s a water tank a mile or so nearby. Guess what? It’s empty. At least she does have iodine tablets for the festering waterhole in the woods. Losing entire toenails, that nasty conglomerate of smells coming off her own body, and don’t even get me started about her teeth. (Though the movie made damn sure every time Witherspoon smiled, it was those dazzling pearlies she’s known for. Unrealistic, but hey we the audience don’t want our star with brown teeth.) Nowhere in the film is there any indication that Cheryl’s done trail hiking before, and indeed, the packing of her gear and how she uses it (and it defuses her) seems to rather indicate she’s very much an unprepared city girl looking to get back to her roots. The folk she meets while on the trail are for the most part kind, nowhere near what one might normally think of the rape-y backwoods inbred types (though there is a scary scene or two with those types in it), and the part where the would-be reporter interviewing her as a female hobo gives her a “hobo care package”, is actually rather funny. Cheryl manages to make friends wherever she goes, be they the one female hiker she meets crossing the PCT too, or the good-ole-boy hiker trio who dub her “Queen of the PCT”, or even the wayward llama towards the end. (No, I’m not joking, a genuine runaway fuzzy pack llama.)
It’s a bit of a shame, really. I haven’t read the book the film is based on, but rather than being any kind of spiritual journey, the movie seems to be a journey of both self-flagellation and self-discovery. Mostly what Cheryl really needs, it seemed to me, is to forgive herself for all that she’s done up to this point – the cheating on her husband, the destructive heroin, the mercy killing of her mothers beloved horse, even her screaming at her own brother. The vision of the fox (it was never said if the cutie was real or not) that comes to her a few times could’ve been something deeply spiritual, even when Cheryl’s screaming at it, perhaps especially then, but no, nothing ever came of that. Instead, the turning point of the whole painful journey seems to come from the little boy who sopranos “Red River Valley” at Cheryl a little bit before she makes it to the Bridge of the Gods, which signifies the end of her walk. The film, despite Cheryl’s ending soliloquy, ends on an uncomfortably unfinished note and the whole thing has a rather frustrated if not depressing quality to it. But then, noone ever said conquering one’s own demons was pleasant.