Let’s cut to the chase: Wild is not another Eat, Pray, Love. Thank you, God of heaven and earth.
If you’ve seen the Wild trailer, you might have been scared like I was. Scared this Reese Witherspoon-led drama was going to reheat Eat, Pray, Love. Like that lamentable movie, Wild also is based upon a bestselling novel about a real-life woman’s journey of self-discovery. Unlike Eat, Pray, Love, Wild is not self-indulgent and pretentious – for the most part. Some final remarks do undermine what has come before, but the re-enactment of Cheryl Strayed’s 1770-kilometre solo trek is refreshingly light on arrogance or cliches.
As we discover through inventive use of flashbacks, Strayed (Witherspoon, nominated for Best Actress Oscar) has made a mess of her life. Reasons for this take time to link up, because we participate in Strayed’s own thought process. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) does a superb job of depicting the prompts for memory. Song lyrics, internal thoughts or a visual cue are constantly used, as subtle triggers for Wild to weave together Strayed’s past.
Her decision to backpack alone, across most of California and Oregon, seems to come from her split with nice-guy husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Yet, as she battles the trail and inner demons, Strayed’s quest isn’t to get over divorce. Her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) looms as her life’s dominant figure. Flowing from a source you probably won’t predict, is the self-destructive spiral of drug addiction and adultery Strayed embraced during her marriage. How all these elements converge, emerges through sequences that some viewers will find offensive (including intense sex scenes, and terrible language).
Perhaps Wild‘s biggest achievement is it doesn’t ask us to sympathise with Strayed. Witherspoon doesn’t play her as a victim, frankly revealing her to often have been selfish, arrogant and ungrateful. Why we are watching this woman take time out to find herself, then, becomes a simple matter. Where Eat, Pray, Love pompously intended to be a universal guide for women everywhere, Strayed’s expedition only works out what it is about – by the time it reaches its destination.
In a voice-over by Witherspoon, Strayed speaks of embracing all she has done – including bad stuff – because it has made her who she is. “What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently?” she ponders. “What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done, was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
I was pretty annoyed by these remarks. Wild hadn’t been indulgent, until this point. Suddenly, Strayed’s journey turned completely inwards and celebrated self. For whatever she means by “sorry”, it doesn’t extend to acknowledging her impact on others. The suggestion that Strayed may have been redeemed, doesn’t explain how. Throwing around those words – “forgiveness”, also, is mentioned – has all the weight of someone choosing to let themselves get away with something.
These parting words of Wild led me to search for redemption that means something. Among other helpful Bible passages (Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:11-14; 1 Peter 1: 17-21), Romans 3:21-26 states that “redemption is in Christ Jesus”. To some, these words sound as empty as what Strayed said. But where she gives no details of what redemption means, God’s Word does. How redemption can be “in Christ Jesus” relates to his death by crucifixion being an actual payment. A true payment for the damage caused by the kinds of awful things Strayed did. The kinds of things we all do, in various degrees, because we cannot live to the measure of goodness God desires.
To redeem is to “buy back” or pay off a debt. None of us could repay each other, let alone God, for the countless ways we haven’t lived rightly. But perfect, sinless Jesus did. By offering himself in exchange for humanity’s debt of sin, allowing for God to be able to “declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus”. Strayed seems to believe redemption is something you can earn on a therapeutic hike. Looking hard at what Jesus did, and why, clearly shows redemption is an entirely different journey.