The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan



You have to be a little crazy to walk 1,000 miles through the wilderness. Unless you're very experienced, it's going to be an arduous, unpleasant task. Most of us are so accustomed to running water, toilets, refrigerated food, cell phones, and other conveniences of modern life that going without them is its own kind of torture. And yet, the wilderness has a great pull for many people. The idea of leaving society behind can feel like an antidote to those who perceive themselves as broken. One such individual was Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling Oprah-approved memoir that inspired the film Wild.

Reese Witherspoon portrays Strayed, a woman whose life has gotten radically off track. Her marriage succumbed after she cheated. She developed a severe drug addiction, plus a tendency to fall into bed with men who are, shall we say, not the greatest. Strayed is also reeling from the death of her mother (Laura Dern, seen in flashbacks). As a result of all these things, she decides to heal herself by spending three months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Her trip is perilous. She doesn't know how to put up a tent, brings the wrong kind of gas canister to cook food, and has boots that are too small. But the time out in the middle of nowhere also allows her to think and process, to begin figuring out how to repair the damage that's been done to her life.

Wild was adapted for the screen by author Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club). They bring an original structure to the story that prevents it from feeling conventional. At first, we don't know why Strayed is making her hike. We just know that she is. As the movie progresses, the flashbacks slowly clue us in to the issues she's dealing with. They're usually short, so that our understanding of them peaks in the last act, thereby creating a powerful effect once Strayed's journey is complete. This approach gives off the important suggestion that the character doesn't find easy answers. It takes a lot of deep soul searching to get her head right. Soul searching is tough to accurately portray onscreen because it's such an interior process. Wild really gets the idea across that Strayed needs three months with no other distractions to help her achieve clarity.

There's a deeply effective contrast between Cheryl Strayed “then” and “now.” On the PCT, she faces a variety of struggles related to taking on an endeavor she's ill-prepared for. Conditions can be treacherous and direction can be hard to pinpoint. There's occasionally physical pain involved, as well as an often frightening sense of isolation, especially when she crosses paths with two hunters, one of whom isn't shy about expressing his sexual attraction to her. However, you realize that, as tough as things are, she's already been through things that were just as difficult in a different way. Watching Wild, it's entirely possible to debate with yourself whether the PCT hike is more anguishing than her personal traumas, or vice versa. That gives the film real power, while also generating a sense of suspense. If the hike doesn't bring peace, there's a real chance Strayed will fall apart.

This is one of Reese Witherspoon's best performances. Although she has played dramatic roles before, there's something perpetually bright and cheery about her. She's beautiful, with a bright smile and a ton of energy. Casting her as a troubled woman was a masterstroke. It's alarming to see Witherspoon shooting drugs or having sex with some sleazy-looking guy. The physical contrast is enough to suggest a woman in trouble. But the actress also delves deep in her performance, conveying the kind of How did I get here? shock that a lot of people feel when they get so far away from the life they imagined. Laura Dern does outstanding work too, playing Cheryl's more together mother, who meets every challenge with acceptance and calmness. Dern's subtle work explains why Strayed can't handle her mother's death; when the person who said “everything will be all right” is gone, how can anything ever be all right again?

Strayed's ex (played by Thomas Sadoski) should have been slightly more developed, just to drive home her guilt about cheating on him. Still, Wild is a terrific, powerful film about a woman navigating two wildernesses: the physical one and the emotional one. Watching how she finds her way through both is inspiring.

( 1/2 out of four)

Wild is rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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