Sometimes a film paints its hero using a lot of shades of grey. The result is a person that is part idol and part idiot. What remains to be seen is which part the audience clings to.

WILD is the story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). Cheryl’s day-to-day life s a shit-storm, what with her marriage ending and her mother passing away far too young. In an effort to find herself, Cheryl makes the 1100 mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail; a trek that begins at the Mexican border and goes all the way up America’s west coast to Canada. As she soaks up some experiences, and curses out some others, Cheryl begins to find what she was looking for.

In the hours since WILD ended, a singular thought has been replaying itself in my head; this film wasn’t what I expected. Now a piece of that might have come from expectations – this was one of my most-anticipated movies of the fall – so in that light, any sort of discontent I may have says more about the hype I brought into the theatre with me than what happened once I was in the theatre. What’s more, this film defying my expectations might have come from my preconceptions with films of this ilk (127 HOURS, INTO THE WILD). The fact that this film breaks from that sort of “sole survivor” story is actually a welcome switch.

One thing that’s undeniable in WILD is that Reese Witherspoon is stellar in it. Whether she needs to embody fear, fracture, determined, or damaged, she is able to deliver on-cue at every turn. Putting aside the dangers that anyone would face hiking solo up the PCT, there are additional dangers that Cheryl faces, and additional demons she is attempting to outrun. The way the film is able to make every person in the cinema identify those dangers and demons is pretty impressive. Reese carries much of it on her face and in her posture, becoming a worthy totem in this survival story.

That survival story is now no longer only Cheryl’s to tell. Her book has been adapted by Nick Hornby, allowing new refractions on her tale. The result is something that pulls no punches as it shows just how messed-up Cheryl was before taking her walk. It also pulls no punches on just how lucky Cheryl was on her hike. She survived with a bit of training, a lot of luck, and a healthy dose of the kindness of strangers. These details of one person’s adventure could handily have been glossed over in a lesser movie; here they make things more genuine…more dangerous.

I’m looking forward to sitting with WILD a while longer and see what come to mind between now and opening night. Perhaps I will seek clarity on it while taking a long walk by myself. Hopefully then with clarity of thought I’ll expand on these feelings of off-kilter expectations…and hopefully my walk is far more safe an activity.