Only a hundred or so more days to go.
After day one of her hike up the Pacific Crest Trail—a winding path that stretches from the Mexican border all the way up the West Coast of the U.S. to the outskirts of Canada—Cheryl Strayed is seriously questioning her willpower. And her sanity.
But it was kind of a mental meltdown that got her here in the first place.
Her life has become a mess. She knows it, and everyone around her knows it. Before she set her feet down on this rough-cut trail, she had been on a self-destructive path of drug addiction and sex with strangers. It was a trek that had destroyed her marriage and sucked away her health. Maybe walking a thousand miles will set things straight.
If nothing else, this journey might give her a chance to think, to dissect the mistakes she's made, to salve the things that hurt the most. Maybe this exhausting slog filled with aching muscles, scraped knees and bloody feet will allow her to finally dig up all the stuff she's had buried down deep.
So she shrugs into her huge and agonizingly heavy pack once again. She takes the next step. She conquers the next mile. She embraces the next hour alone with her thoughts.
With only a hundred or so more days to go.
Cheryl clearly realizes that she has to fix things in her life before it runs completely off the rails and she ends up killing herself. "I ruined my marriage, and now I'm ruining the rest of my life," she laments. So, in a way, this hike becomes an extended therapy session where she sorts through the ugly things of her past and reaches for a sense of healing. Her choices don't change for the better overnight, or even over 100 nights, but at least she's stretching herself in ways she wasn't before.
Interestingly, the very man she cheated on and betrayed, her ex-husband, Paul, is one of the people who repeatedly sends her encouraging notes at ranger stations along the trail. We see in flashbacks that he and Cheryl's best friend, Aimee, tried to lend loving support whenever possible.
Other flashback scenes reveal tender and loving moments between Cheryl and her ever optimistic mother, Bobbi. We learn that Bobbi had struggled through her own challenges—including raising two young kids on her own after leaving an abusive husband—but she never wavered in reaching for her "best self." She tried to instill that determination in Cheryl as well. And it's obvious that this loving woman had a lasting impact on both her kids. Cheryl later wonders if all the foolish things she did had to happen so she could eventually find her way back to becoming the woman her mother raised.
Even as a teen Cheryl recognizes her mom's value. And her brother says of their mom, "The past few years, I've acted like she was nothing to me, but actually she was everything." Near death, Bobbi continues to live up to that kind of adulation by donating her corneas to the hospital to give to another patient.
Physical journeys can sometimes have a spiritual effect on people. But Cheryl isn't someone who's open to supernatural epiphanies. When Bobbi's health gives out, a woman tells Cheryl she'll pray for her. Cheryl, on the other hand, has no place in her heart for God. In fact, when she finally "prays" for her worsening mother, she and her brother address "the universe." Later, when she gets lost along the trail, she balks at the idea of giving God any credit for getting her back on the right path. "As if He gives a s---!" she spits.
In multiple flashbacks we see Cheryl in realistically rendered and often drugged-out sex scenes that usually find her completely naked or topless and her various male partners (sometimes more than one at a time) near naked as well. Graphic motions and sounds accompany the scenes. And she doesn't completely distance herself from such casual sex acts while on the trail. She meets an attractive man in a town she walks into and quickly ends up in his bed as he gives her oral sex. She included a12-pack of condoms in her backpack, and she says, "I'm sorta like a guy about sex. Sorta detached."
Cheryl also gains some sexual attention that she isn't desirous of while alone and defenseless out in the wilderness. A couple of hunters make lecherous comments to her and one appears to be moving to molest her before his friend calls him away. Several other men leer at her as well. She (and the camera) watches from a distance as a male hiker displays full frontal nudity while washing in a lake.
Cheryl removes her hiking boot to show us her badly bloodied foot. She cries out as she pulls off a mangled toenail. And she looks at herself naked in a mirror while the camera examines all the nasty bruises and open wounds the trail and her heavy backpack have given her.
While she's high on heroin, Cheryl is robbed at knifepoint by another druggie. In the course of her wanton flings she gets pregnant by an unknown partner and has an abortion. Bobbi is seen bearing cuts and bruises inflicted by her abusive husband, and she later slowly dies of cancer.
Crude or Profane Language
About 30 f-words and a dozen s-words join repeated uses of "b--ch," "h---," "a--" and "d--n." Jesus' and God's names are misused six or eight times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
In flashback scenes Cheryl drinks beer and hard liquor regularly. She gets drunk while on the trail after running into a trio of guys with bottles of booze in their packs. A park ranger tries to lure her with a promise of alcohol. A farmer gives her a swig from his hip flask.
Cheryl smokes and injects heroin repeatedly. A woman tokes a joint while standing on a street corner, and several people puff on cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Cheryl vomits after getting drunk. The camera shows her other bodily waste left along the trail.
When Cheryl Strayed began her 1,100 mile walk up the PCT she was a 26-year-old hiking novice burdened with two painfully heavy loads. One was her massive backpack—so overstuffed she could barely hoist it off the ground. The other seemingly equal load was the weight of her own royally messed up life. As we follow her trek, we see her mentally prodding and poking at the raw wounds inside while at the same time ripping off torn toenails and dabbing at the scrapes and scuffs on the outside.
This film, then, becomes a march of cinematic and symbolic self-discovery. With each emotional flashback we see the unchosen grief and self-chosen torture that shaped this young woman. And with each passing painful mile we see her seeking for atonement, a way for her to shuck off her agonies and failures and move on to a new beginning.
"It was my life, like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be," Cheryl says as she tells us of the rebuilding efforts she would make after that grueling journey. And on the face of things, that all sounds very philosophically positive and intellectually uplifting.
But for us tagalong moviegoers, it's hard to say that things end up quite so well. For when Cheryl mentally wades back through her doped-up sexual encounters with total strangers in grubby, filthy flophouses and dirty alleyways, we're forced to watch both the sex and the drug abuse.
So by the end of this two-hour-but-oh-so-much-longer-feeling journey we too have some extra baggage to hoist, most of it visual. I don't think we're all ready to walk 1,000 miles so we can shrug it off again.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed; Laura Dern as Mom/Bobbi; Thomas Sadoski as Paul; Keene McRae as Leif
December 3, 2014
March 31, 2015