Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Bought on blu ray for five bucks.
After the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed falls apart. Unable to cope with her grief, she loses herself in drugs and casual sex; as one of her therapists puts it: ‘using heroin, and sleeping with anyone who asks.’ Separated from her husband, and hitting bottom, Cheryl comes up with an unusual plan; she will hike 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from Nevada to Oregon, a journey through an actual wilderness she hopes will complete a metaphoric one, back to herself.
She endures a tough start. She brings too much equipment she doesn’t need. She leaves behind other equipment, she does. She has the wrong sized shoes, not enough food, everyone makes fun of her huge pack. Meanwhile, she is detoxing, and reliving all of her recent trauma. But as she struggles to stick to the task, in the face of these obstacles, the first of her strengths reveals itself: she is VERY determined.
As the yellow of the Mojave desert gives way to the green of the Sierra Mountains, we see more of her life; Cheryl as a child, her younger brother, their mother as an abused wife and then single parent. Then Cheryl and her mother at school, studying alongside one another, followed by her mother’s illness and sudden death (‘They told me it would be a year and its been A MONTH’). In the aftermath: her random sexual encounters, drug use, arguments with, and eventual separation from, her husband, Paul.
These are not conventional flashbacks, and are not arranged chronologically; they are little snippets and come to Cheryl at random, triggered by things she sees and hears. Music is a big part of it; Cheryl’s mother was always singing and humming tunes, driving her crazy, now these same songs carry her memory, and follow Cheryl around like a ghost. This collage-like approach, a combination of real experience, memories and music, really gives you a sense of someone sorting through their own history; like looking through a four dimensional scrapbook.
Reese Witherspoon gives one of her best performances in the lead; a role that allows her to show enormous rage, playing everything from an earnest college girl, to a drugged out fuck up. She has a number of choice moments; an argument with Paul after he retrieves her from a one night stand, sinking to her knees on the trail in tears to say, ‘I miss you’, or when she is chatting to another solo hiker and observes ‘I feel lonelier in my regular life than I do out here’. Plus the way she forces herself to face up to the obtsacles she encounters, whether it is a shortage of water, or a couple of douchebag bros who give her a hard time. An empathetic performance, that takes you on quite a journey. Laura Dern is perfectly cast as her mother; a woman whose hard knock life did not harden a gentle soul.
The ending of the film is especially strong. As Cheryl finishes her trek, now something of a trail master, she wonders: what next? And then, she runs into a small boy, walking with his grandmother. The three chat for a moment, and then the boy asks Cheryl if she would like to hear a song.
She says yes.
He starts singing ‘The Red River Valley’ to her. It’s an old, sentimental American folk song, and it clearly has some special significance to the kid. He looks emotional. Cheryl looks emotional. Something hangs in the air, carried by this song.
The kid has been through some thing, and is now coming out the other side, and he has this song which will stay with him and carry a memory of significant events. While we do not know what this is, it seems to be the same thing that Cheryl has been dealing with; trauma, recovery, memories, music. You can see it on her face. And the point is: we are all of us the same, and face the same things. A very important message if you feel lost and alone.
Shortly after this, Cheryl walks out onto the ‘Bridge of the Gods’, a spectacular bridge over the Columbia River in Oregon. Trail’s end. She turns and looks around, takes in all the natural beauty, and sees the talismanic fox that has been accompanying her, in her imagination, turn and run away into the forest.
‘What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry? But if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if I wanted to sleep with every single one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?’
This is a slightly different theme to what a film like this would normally shoot for. Instead of, she has to find a way to negate the recent events of her life, cancel all the debauched behaviour, she will instead incorporate this into what comes next. It’s about self acceptance. She subsequently writes a book that becomes a best seller, a hopeful memoir for other lost souls.
An encouraging and emotional ending, to a well told story. The sort of Hollywood film we don’t get often enough anymore.