Saturday 2 November 2019

Movie Review: A Walk In The Woods (2015)

A semi-biographical drama and buddy comedy, A Walk In The Woods uses a long hike late in life to explore past decisions with a soft touch.

Elderly travel author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) has reached a creative dead end. With his career reduced to reissuing old books and attending the funerals of dead friends, he decides on a whim to hike the 3,500 kilometre Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Main, an arduous months-long commitment. Bill's wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is horrified at the idea, but cannot talk him out of it. She does, however, convince him to find a hiking partner.

None of the friends and colleagues that Bill approaches are interested, but his buddy from the old days Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) hears about the hiking plan and eagerly volunteers. Katz is a grizzled free-spirited hell-raising adventurer who has done little with his life, and is now overweight and in poor health but at least has quit drinking. The two men travel to Georgia and start the hike, which turns into an opportunity to get reacquainted and for Bill to reassess his life.

A Walk In The Woods is sharply written and funnier than it needs to be. Directed by Ken Kwapis, the adaptation of the novel by Bill Bryson adopts a low key attitude towards the sense of malaise permeating the author's life. Dramatic revelations, hug-outs and big reveals are mercifully left out of the backpacks. Instead, Bill reflects upon his life tangentially and almost apologetically, as the hike and conversations help lift the fog about his achievements as he regains the perspective easily lost within daily minutiae.

As they huff and puff across the terrain Bill and Katz trade barbs and chip away at the jumble of life's compromises. Their friendship may have melted away under the strain of decidedly different attitudes, but neither claims the higher ground. Katz remained loyal to the young and fearless version of himself, gathering memories, legendary exploits, poor health and arrest warrants along the way. Bill settled to a life of domesticity with one woman, writing popular travel books and maintaining a healthy curiosity for learning. Passing a rock formation along the trail, Bill explains the various types of rocks and how, when and why they were created. "They're just rocks", growls Katz.

Along the way Bill and Katz encounter other hikers, mostly younger, some helpful, a few irritatingly smug, others just tired. Mostly these meetings serve to remind Bill and Katz they are slow, old and unlikely to complete the trail. While Katz is happy to call it a day anytime, Bill insists he is no quitter and doggedly proclaims he will carry on, with or without companionship. And when they face potentially lethal hazards in the form of hungry wildlife, bad weather and slippery ledges, maturity jumps in front of panic to handle the risk.

The film's primary joy is derived from the buzz between Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, two veterans finding a crackling dynamic built on character contrasts. Redford allows the cragginess of his 79 years to rest easily on the surface, wisdom, patience, honesty and stubbornness now the only things that matter for Bill. Nolte at 74 gives Katz a memorably gravelly and lumbering presence, a man who can dominate any environment just as easily as he can outstay his welcome.

In addition to Emma Thompson as Bill's wife, the supporting cast also features Mary Steenburgen as lodge owner the men meet along the trail.

A Walk In The Woods brings fresh air, edgy discourse, brushes with danger, moments of spectacular scenery, and a much needed emotional reset, useful at any age.

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