The Simon and Garfunkel song "El Cóndor Pasa" plays repeatedly throughout Wild. Within the story, it often serves as a Proustian trigger for Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) to reflect on her past, particularly her relationship with her beloved mother (the dependably flawless Laura Dern). Since Cheryl is embarking on a 1100 mile hike from New Mexico to Portland, Oregon, she has plenty of time to reflect. In a more abstract sense, the song sums up the tone of the film. Much like "El Cóndor Pasa", Wild is full of yearning to be somewhere better, or to be someone better, to be a hammer instead of a nail. In Cheryl's case, her desire is to forget the pain of her recent past, which encapsulates divorce, sex and drug addiction, all of which were brought about by the sudden death of her mother.
Before it even starts, Wild has to overcome a stigma against its own genre. Stories about (overwhelmingly) white people going on a journey to find themselves is not the most illustrious of genres, particularly since they tend to be a means of delivering bland platitudes and reaffirming the status quo. Films like Eat, Pray, Love reduce the search for personal or spiritual growth to opportunities for cinematic tourism, with the search relegated to the background. The fact that it is based on the memoir of the real Cheryl Strayed only heightens the sense that it is going to be feel-good pablum.
Wild dispels that idea from its very first scene. It plays with a standard of the genre, the idea of someone setting out on a journey and being unprepared, but rather than having Witherspoon lose her luggage or get swindled by the locals, director Jean-Marc Vallée opens on the moment when Cheryl has to pull off one of her own toenails, the result of not wearing the correct boots and overloading her pack with too much equipment. Her unpreparedness is not treated as a bit of harmless naivety, but as something that could easily get her killed.
That earthy approach runs throughout Wild, which places a strong emphasis on the physical toll that Cheryl's journey has on her body. In addition to the aforementioned toenail, there are numerous instances when we see the way that Cheryl's pack has rubbed her skin to the point where it's raw and bloodied, and Witherspoon conveys the sheer effort that it takes to travel such a great distance alone. Nick Hornsby's script doesn't shy away from the more intangible dangers of traveling alone, particularly for a woman. There are several scenes where Cheryl feels menaced by the men that she encounters, and with good reason. One of the underlying themes of Wild is that life is hard, particularly if you're on the road, particularly if you're on your own, and especially if you're a woman. There are no easy answers in Cheryl Strayed's journey.
The film also engages with an idea that is often ignored by these sort of stories; that self-discovery is also a form of self-destruction. The search for a sense of self has to come from a place of not being satisfied with who you are, so the only logical end is to find a new self to replace the old one. When she starts her journey, Cheryl is not happy with who she is, and her hike seems like her last hope of becoming a better person. The extensive use of flashbacks means that Witherspoon gets to play many different versions of Cheryl as she moves away from being one person to another; the yearning dreamer, the bitter cynic; the shameless junkie, the fragile ex-addict; the sheltered daughter, the resourceful traveller. It's a nuanced performance that encapsulates all these contradictions in one indelibly human role.
That label could be applied to the film as a whole. It's a film which tries to provide a full portrait of a single person, and it does so with clear-eyed determination and real warmth and affection. In rebuking all those maudlin, shallow stories of people going on personal journeys, it manages to realise their intentions better than they ever could.