Walking a thousand miles in two hours of screen time is the kind of cinematic journey that requires a delicate directorial touch. Condense the trek too much and you end up with a rushed, hurried demonstration of the experience. Condense too little by spending swaths of time on just a few small portions of the journey and you lose the story's large scope. There's a balance between the two, though, and it's precisely where Jean-Marc Vallée positions his one-woman-walk picture Wild, with time and character intertwined so artfully, so exquisitely that both are felt deeply with each step forward. Each step backward, too, since Wild is as much about protagonist Cheryl Strayed's (a fully committed Reese Witherspoon) checkered past as it is about her journey to find a future. The hiking portion and the flashbacks make a beautifully complementary pair as they come together to bring the image of Cheryl into focus.

Since Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed's recent memoir, the story understandably has a personal element that makes it intimately dedicated to its protagonist. The narrative is exclusively hers, which puts a lot of pressure on Witherspoon to give her character great dimension and also asks much of Vallée, who has to meld Cheryl's past and present in a creative, engaging manner that feels internal and individualized. Flashbacks are heavily employed, of course, but the device isn't used as a mechanical cheat or a sentimental distraction from the arduousness of the hike, instead succeeding as a window into Cheryl's mind and memories. The flashback space is also Vallée's only place to cut away to, so we're forever locked into her experience.

Vallée, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editors John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa then face the challenge of chronicling Cheryl's journey, both physical and emotional, without having the luxury of a subplot to play off of. A montage is used at one point, but it's a thankfully humourous one that illustrates the many ways Cheryl tries to eat her "cold mush" meals in hopes of finding a palatable combination. Other than that, the pic follows a structure where a portion of the hike is shown and a flashback is then triggered, revealing bit by bit the truth of Cheryl's troubled history.

It all boils down to her relationship with her mother (a lovely Laura Dern) and what happened when she succumbed to cancer, leaving Cheryl to destroy her marriage and dig herself into a horrible hole. After languishing in her pain for a while, racked with guilt that she's somehow disappointed her mother, she decides to move on by tackling the gargantuan Pacific Crest Trail. A long walk to cleanse the soul.

This structure of back and forth cutting between the present and the past can easily be stiffly formulaic, but here it feels loose and organic, a rich representation of being simultaneously inside and outside of someone’s head. The flashbacks reveal the exposition in due time, but they hardly feel like weak fill-ins included merely for our knowledge and pleasure. They’re pieces of Cheryl as much as the stuff she lugs around in her gigantic pack, pieces that we’re privy to only on her terms.

There’s certainly much to be gleaned from the flashbacks, but there are additional shades of character definition at work in how Cheryl recalls the memories. The flashbacks are full of pain and torment, jagged fragments slashing at her psyche, and present day Cheryl continues to carry that baggage with her, which gives her hike emotional stakes to match the physical ones.

The hike itself powerfully contributes to the redemption theme by virtue of its sheer length. While obstacles often lie in Cheryl’s path, the greatest challenge is one of endurance. Having the strength and the will to push forward across such an expansive amount of territory is a tall order and Vallée gets this point across by letting us be present for so many of Cheryl’s steps throughout so many different landscapes. There’s something striking and startling about watching the hike begin in a desert area and then later seeing Cheryl trek through snow and forests.

Vallée’s camera is always with Cheryl so we experience the hike at her level, from her perspective. When the moment is afforded by her vantage point, we can look out and see the space ahead, wilderness stretching on seemingly forever on a horizon that we know Cheryl must reach. That encouraging sense of individualism comes especially into play here. It really is Cheryl against the world.

Cheryl meets various people on her journey, some funny, some friendly, some creepy, but none of them factor into her experience for more than a fleeting moment. These strangers offer tiny morsels of emotion and humour and heart, but Wild is about Cheryl's journey and hers alone. With the exception of the occasional helping hand, she remains the driving force of her narrative from beginning to end.

The conflict then generally remains internalized as well, because the people and creatures she meets along the way are hardly ever established as threats. Even a pair of stereotypically redneck-ish hunters who leer at Cheryl when they awkwardly cross paths prove to be ultimately harmless weirdos. A rattlesnake is encountered at one point, but evading it proves easy. These challenges are not inconsequential, but they allow Vallée to more eloquently put the weight of the conflict on the shoulders of the flashbacks.

So the balance between the past and present is thus achieved, with each time period passing the dramatic baton to the other and back again, all the while with Witherspoon’s marvelous, moving performance anchoring everything at its emotional centre. Vallée wisely chooses to focus tightly on Cheryl, so that everyone else on screen is always defined by their connection to her. Most of the people just pass through the story and are never attended to again. Others, the most important people to Cheryl, linger in the flashbacks, though even they are swept away by time.

Vallée’s singular vision here makes sense in an adaptation of a memoir, but the approach is used so specifically to get inside Cheryl’s head and free up a sense of time that it creates a very special and unique experience. The stunning photography and sharp editing make for a gorgeous and engaging walk that speaks to both physical and emotional exhaustion. And the dramatic impact here has an accumulative energy, building up as the movie progresses, reaching its most touching peak just in time for the finish line. Walking a thousand movie miles with Cheryl proves poignant, poetic, a cinematic trek that feels inherently human, not a calculated concoction, but a natural wonder sensitive to the sweetly soothing qualities of a healed heart and a place to rest one’s feet.