I’m not sure what the fuss is about this film. Even without having read the book on which this is based, we can see that the film is hobbled by its effort to include the book’s journal-writing component, its essential lack of two-person scenes, and by reticence about the central character’s past failures and character flaws.
Unlike A.O. Scott of The New York Times, I think the film fails to enrich the character by its brief fragments of back-story. Most of those back-story hints involve the protagonist’s failures and weaknesses, and that back-story is shown only briefly, perhaps so that it might come off to the audience as just hard times, leading us to react with sympathy rather than judgment.
The film seems meant to be a recovery success story with an admirable woman as the central character. No need to dwell on any counterpoints.
Before the screenwriter ever fired up Final Draft, the film had a couple of advantages: there would be a variety of impressive landscapes, and there would be a well liked and photogenic actress on camera for nearly every frame.
Reece Witherspoon never looks as if she has been struggling in the wilderness. We have all seen more bedraggled people after one night in an airlines terminal following a cancelled flight.
But the film starts off with some disadvantages, too. The central relationship in the film is not between two people, but between a woman and her pack. A lone hiker cannot easily share her thoughts without some artificial contrivance, like a voice over to start with. This film is annoyingly overlaid with familiar quotations from several poets, quotations that cannot adequately compensate us for not hearing the protagonist in conversation.
The product placement is shameless. REI makes an heroic appearance. A famished Cheryl Strayed demands “a Snapple and potato chips, any kind of potato chips.” Snapple gets perhaps three or four mentions. I guess that the studio could not work out a product placement deal with a potato chip manufacturer.