In an attempt to quiet her demons, Strayed embarked on a 1,000-mile solo trek on the exceedingly difficult Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through California, Oregon and Washington.
To hike the Pacific Crest, one must adjust to sea-level altitudes, as well as to heights of more 13,000 feet -- not to mention the threat of snakes, wildlife, wild swings in weather (heat and snow) and scary isolation.
The resulting trek, which Strayed made in 1995, transformed her life and led to the publication of Wild, a best-selling 2012 memoir about her shattered life and restorative wilderness journey.
Actress Reese Witherspoon joins with director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyers Club) to bring Strayed's story to the screen, presenting Strayed's inner and outer journeys -- both of which resound with hardship.
The resultant movie allows Witherspoon to seize an opportunity to appear sans make-up and, at times, without psychological defenses. She's certainly up to the challenge.
Because Strayed traveled alone, her story has been taken as a statement of feminist triumph. Strayed entered a male domain and proved that she could survive the arduous hardships of the trail. Viewed that way, the story acquires additional heft.
Although not without its tensions, Strayed's wilderness adventure is presented in straightforward fashion. She began with a ridiculously heavy backpack and boots that were too small. Gradually, she learned how to keep herself going.
Strayed met men along the way, and Vallee treats most of these meetings as friendly and helpful, although one proves potentially threatening, something along Deliverance lines.
Strayed's plunge into a wanton life began with the death of her 45-year-old mother (Laura Dern) from cancer. That blow was followed by estrangement from her husband (Thomas Sadowski), who made several futile attempts to rescue her from self-imposed degradation.
Vallee chooses to deal with Strayed's torments by replicated the way our minds tend to be flooded by unwanted thoughts. It's a valid approach, but the movie's many flashbacks don't always work, perhaps because they often feel abrupt and fragmentary, as if they've been shot out of a cannon.
As Strayed hikes, she's constantly confronting images of sexual abandon and heroin addiction. She also recalls happy times with her loving mother (Laura Dern), a woman who had a bad track record with men. We learn about Strayed's relationship with a younger brother, who had his own difficulties accepting his mother's death.
British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy and An Education) seems to dispense with a third act. The hike ends, Strayed tells us that everything in her life (good and bad) may have been necessary for her to reach the purifying moment with which the film concludes.
That's a triumphant ending on the page; somehow -- or so it seemed to me -- it didn't seem quite so moving on screen.
When Strayed finally has her big emotional catharsis, she drops to her knees and weeps after an unexpected encounter with a boy and his grandmother. Vallee shoots this scene from behind Witherspoon. We see only her back and that ever-present backpack, prominent though reduced in size from the movie's early going.
Something about that image didn't feel right to me. I don't know exactly what I wanted so see at that precise moment, but it sure wasn't that damn backpack.
Still, Witherspoon's performance, the range of scenery captured by cinematographer's Yves Belanger's camera and the amazing fact of the story -- a brave soul with no-previous experience conquered the Pacific Crest trail on her own -- prove sufficient fuel to keep the movie marching forward.