My Rating: 3 stars
I was drawn to this movie because I’ve hiked a (very small) portion of the John Muir Trail. The JMT is a piece of the Pacific Crest Trail that the protagonist Cheryl Strayed hikes in this story. I may not have hiked very much of it, but I did get the full backpacking experience—sleeping in a tent, carrying my dehydrated food packets and reconstituting them each night, purifying river water, hiding fragrant items from bears at night. And of course, going without any meaningful form of bathing the whole time. That doesn’t seem like such a hardship to some, but it’s extra gross after a full day of hiking on a dusty trail, and marinating in one’s own grease and sweat. I was out on the trail long enough to have one of those really satisfying showers afterward, where the water is running black off your body. That’s a satisfying feeling.
Cheryl Strayed is a self-admitted emotional wreck. So, I was pretty interested in seeing how this spoiled mess of a woman dealt with the hardships of the trail. Of course, this film was naturally going to present a much more stylized, glamorous account of her journey. For example, Reese Witherspoon always looked really cute, even when she was supposed to be dead-tired. And, I don’t think this movie captured the slow passage of time very accurately. I had the benefit of hiking with my brother and dad (who continued on to hike the whole JMT, by the way), so I at least had some companions to chat with. But even then, the days stretched on forever. So, I felt like this film moved a little too quickly through Cheryl’s hiking days. The script made a big deal over the hikers who “made it,” versus the people who gave up mid-journey. But, I don’t think the film adequately communicated the stakes or the fatigue.
But, there was plenty that I thought the film got right. For example, I thought the movie very accurately portrayed just how terrifying it would be to be a single woman out on the trail. Even if a lone woman isn’t afraid of being assaulted in every encounter with men she meets out there, the threat is still there. And, she can feel the eyes of every man she passes carefully assessing her situation. It’s awful. And, I think the movie also pretty accurately captures the level of filth you pick up out there. The rare showers you encounter at random backwoods camps, or nearby town are glorious. Oh, and a hot meal. You’ve never appreciated food more.
I don’t know if I was really buying the whole “trail as redemption from your haunting past as a drug- and sex-addict.” I’m sure that’s what Cheryl told herself she was doing at the time, but it seems a little contrived to me. And, I really don’t know how sympathetic a character I found her to be. Of course, I didn’t want her to get hurt, or lost. But, I don’t think I was really with her on her emotional journey. But I guess I recommend this movie anyway. It was trying to be a lot of things, and don’t think it really accomplished all of them, but it was still interesting enough. So, it’s worth a rental.