Film Review: A WALK IN THE WOODS
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, Kristen Schaal
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Produced by Robert Redford, Bill Holderman, Chip Diggins
Screenplay by Rick Kerb, Bill Holderman
Based on the book “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson
Cinematography by John Bailey
Music by Nathan Larson
Edited by Carol Littleton
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What better way to spend a late summer day than a walk in the woods? Yes, literally is good—actually going out and walking in some woods, yes—but also, a great way to spend a late summer day is taking a walk in the woods in the film of the same name, “A Walk in the Woods,” an excellent drama-comedy that wonderfully explores, and revels in, the uniqueness, strangeness, quirkiness and complete wonderfulness of some very basic things that too many films tend to skim over, generalize over or just completely miss in terms of truly exploring in an in-depth, insightful, mature, adult and funny manner: people, aging, growing up, coming to terms with various aspects of life through time, the beauty and power of nature, pushing oneself despite possible odds against you—and life in general.
“A Walk in the Woods,” based on the gangbuster comedic travel adventure 1998 book of the same name by talented and entertaining writer Bill Bryson, is excellent, on all levels. “Walk” is highly recommended, for many reasons, but the low-budget, independent-oriented, quirky drama-comedy stands out at least on one level for proudly being simply what it is: a small, low-budget, closely-contained, talky (but wickedly sharp, clever, insightful and funny talky), fun, funny on-the-trail film that wholly ignores most tenets and templates for most summer films in today’s marketplace. Thankfully, truly thankfully, there are no explosions, gunfights, fistfights, car chases, car crashes, guns, gadgets, planes, trains, helicopters, drones, computers, yelling and screaming, violence, gore, mayhem, nudity, overly-rushed editing, overly-rushed pacing, distracting computer-generated effects, distracting special effects, spaceships, superheroes, over-done characters, stereotypes, generalizations, stupid stilted and clichéd dialogue, familiar characters we’ve seen too often, animation or super heroes—and let’s congratulate the cast and crew of “Walk” for that, right there. It is a victory, an advantage and a major positive attribute that right at the end of the traditional summer season (although summer technically ends toward the end of September) that a film of this nature—pun intended—can arrive in theater just in time for the Labor Day weekend and in turn light up the theaters and put to shame dozens of crappy, over-done and disappointing big-budget Hollywood mistakes that cluttered, trashed and smelled-up movie theaters for much of the summer, with a few exceptions.
“Walk,” the film, tells the story of the writer Bryson’s (Robert Redford) ill-fated, comical—and, actually, quite heroic—attempt to hike the approximately 2,200-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail—commonly known as the Appalachian Trail—in all of his middle-aged glory. In the film, Bryson’s character is a quite successful, comfortable, well-off, settled, content and successful writer in his late 50s/early 60s with all that one could want—a beautiful wife (a glowing, smiling, beautiful Emma Thompson, always a welcome presence on screen, even in a small role like the one she has in “Walk”); beautiful kids; fame; riches; a nice house; a nice car; and a contented, safe place in life without much stress, problems—or challenges. Alas, that latter point, along with a disturbing trend of seeing friends, acquaintances, colleagues and associates seemingly dying off or slowing down or getting saddled with various aches and pains at an alarmingly increasing rate, sets off an alarm in Bryson’s psyche. He knows he’s actually too content, too settled—and time is running out, literally and figuratively. So he simply, abruptly decides to challenge himself—by deciding to attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, a beautiful, natural trail that runs from Georgia to Maine.
This would be a good context for any story for any person right there—and it is indeed a commonplace, but always compelling, context for filmic storytelling. Of course, Reese Witherspoon just turned in a bravura performance in “Wild” last year, 2014—earning deserved universal praise for her performance—in which her character, facing similar life and psychological challenges, sets out to hike the approximately 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Witherspoon received a deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. And just this month—September, 2015—“Everest” is scheduled to be released on Friday, Sept. 18, telling the story about an ill-fated 1996 expedition to scale Mt. Everest. Director Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” in 2011, about a hiker in Utah who faces horrendous circumstances while on a hike, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. And Sean Penn’s 2007 acclaimed “Into the Wild,” starring Emile Hirsch, received two Academy Award nominations.
“A Walk in the Woods,” with its assured, clever and funny direction; its insightful, smart, true-to-life, gritty, down-to-earth and life-exploring screenplay and dialogue; exceptional performances by Redford and a roaring, charging, fearless, brave and completely open and honest tour-de-force performance by Nick Nolte as Bryson’s lifelong friend and current hiking partner on the trek, Stephen Katz, as well as worthy supporting turns by Thompson, the always-beguiling Mary Steenburgen and a great interlude turn by the always-funny and original Kristen Shaal; a story that does indeed, slyly and smoothly, explore various aspects of life in a non-stereotypical, deeply psychological and mature manner; and, of course, consistently beautiful, astounding and breathtaking scenery of welcome real-life woods, trails, rocks, trees, forests and mountains, can take its place proudly alongside these other exceptional hiking, outdoor-set and life-exploration films.
Redford and Nolte are classic together, and each succeeds in portraying their respective characters in a distinctive way, but Nick Nolte, having the advantage or playing the more outrageous, colorful and outsized personality, slyly, smartly—and somewhat crazily–steals the film. The scenery is always beautiful and breathtaking, providing a wonderful ode to the beauty that is nature; the ode to the environment and conservation is excellent and honorable and much-appreciated; and the direction and production are beautiful, funny, charming, humorous and insightful. The film is about many things, but mostly it’s about character—real character, real people, real lives and real situations that arise in life. The dialogue is crisp, sharp, insightful and funny. And the direction is assured and confident from start to finish. The film is light-hearted and will make you laugh—but the film will also make you think about many things–most importantly, life in general and each person’s individual, distinctive and lasting place in that life.
“A Walk in the Woods” is highly recommended. Although the film is actually rated R, the only reason for that rating—and it should actually have been PG-13—is some salty, raunchy (but not insultingly dumb, offensive or gratuitous) dialogue. But that dialogue, again, is always smart, real, adult and insightful. So the film is actually appropriate for mature teens on up—which is a good point to make because the film tackles some life issues that, again, are missing on such an adult level in the more empty, blank, substandard blockbusters.
And “Walk’ should be seen in the actual movie theaters, due to the beautiful scenery, which deserves to be viewed up on the big screen.
It is a joy and a wonder to watch Redford—who in real life is actually 79, if the world can believe, or handle, that fact—and Nolte—who in real life is 74, if the world can handle that, too—attempt to walk the always-difficult trail in general, deal with various weather and animal and people and endurance and physical challenges, and, all the while, hilariously bicker, argue, tease, insult and challenge each other—just like real-life best friends actually do. That’s, again, a big part of what “Walk” is actually about—not just about nature and the outdoors and the Appalachian Trail or walking the trail, but dealing with people in your life who somehow are soulmates and friends, but somehow, at times, can always drive you bat-guano crazy. But that’s life—none of us are perfect, we all have our quirks, and every single one of us tends to irritate, anger or annoy others in our lives—even our best friends and family members—more than a few times as the years go by. Again, that’s life. So to watch the characters of Bryson and Katz figuratively bang heads, brains, feelings, emotions and psyches up against each other like some type of late-middle-age macho intellectual brain dual exercise, is continually fun, funny and thoroughly entertaining. Does the real-life ages of Redford and Nolte add to the enjoyment of the characters’ story and interactions? Yes, it does. For watching these older guys—that’s not an insult, because they are indeed older guys, in real life and as their characters—heroically struggle and fight and strive to hike this darn trail, despite the various obstacles constantly thrown their way, is admirable, impressive, inspiring and wonderfully life-affirming.
How many of us suddenly one day stop and say, “I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail?” Yes, yes, hundreds or thousands of people attempt to walk the trail every day, week, month and year—go to any spot on the trail during the year (usually, of course, the spring, summer and fall) and you will literally meet people hiking small parts, large parts—or even the entire portion—of the trail. However, all of those people represent a small percentage of the greater populace. And, yes, of course, we all challenge ourselves constantly in many other ways—and that is just as commendable and inspiring. But, in the context of the film, to see Bryson and Katz bravely attempt their hike along the Appalachian Trial is, again, just purely inspirational.
Director Ken Kwapis does something sly with “Walk”—he could have elevated these life-exploration and life-challenging aspects of the film to greater heights, in terms of approach, heaviness, weightiness, stylization and dialogue to expand on the greater themes, morals and messages of the story, and he could have made some type of grand, probing, deep psychological man-vs.-life, man-vs.-nature epic-type film. And that would have been a complete, total mistake, on every level. Because not only have too many films have taken that approach, but, more importantly, that’s not the story that Bryson wrote and that’s not the story that should have been in the film. Because Bryson was smart, savvy and insightful enough to make his story—in the book, as in the film—funny. Humor is the cornerstone and foundation of the film’s story, and that’s what saves the film, makes it original, makes it fun—and makes it original. There’s no law, rule or tenet that says filmmakers—or authors or playwrights or songwriters or writers—can’t make an intelligent, searching and intellectually smart film without humor. Humor can tell a deep, smart story just as well as straight-on drama or tragedy. And it’s humor—constant, sharp, clever funny humor—that anchors “A Walk in the Woods,” from the literal hilarious opening scene to the very last, smart, clever closing shot.
Redford has always displayed a somewhat sly, hidden, come-out-of-nowhere humor in his acting—it’s there, but it sneaks up on you, unexpectedly. For instance, his comedic interplay with Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) and “The Sting” (1973), and his scenes with Jane Fonda in “The Electric Horseman” (1979) and his subversive turn in “Sneakers” (1992) display a subtle, subdued comic presence. (Look for a very subtle homage to Newman in “Walk;” Redford, who co-produces the film, at one point had considered Newman for the Katz role.) And Redford, in “Walk,” displays that same comic presence, and here it’s even bolstered by the funny dialogue and situations present in the film. But, alas, in “Walk,” it’s really, in the end, Nick Nolte’s star turn that, again, draws attention in a unique manner. Not so much that the performance takes away from the central character and meaning of Bryson, but it’s just enough to provide a great, rollicking, fascinating counter-balance to keep things interesting. This odd couple—who do share a life history together, as old friends who veered apart in later years—of course brings to mind past odd couples such as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” (the play, 1965; the original television show, 1970 to 1975; and the film, 1968), or Steve Martin and John Candy’s polar-opposites in John Hughes “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987).
Nolte’s Katz is an outsized, larger-than-life, blue-collar rough, crass, crude, slightly rude, tumbling, fumbling, stumbling fearless Hemingwayesque rogue, one step ahead of the law, still randy and ready for some trysts despite his age, and, in the end, somehow thoroughly likeable, lovable, approachable and overall, interesting and fascinating. He’s one of those people who you want to hang out with and party with—but just, well, every so often. And when this rough-and-tumble human force of nature interacts with Bryson’s more straightlaced, conservative, well-mannered, somewhat uptight white-collar intellectual writer, along with the aforementioned natural obstacles on the trail, that just makes for great personality clashes, personal interaction, examinations of the vast differences in people and the lives that they lead, examinations of growing older, looking at having and making and losing and regaining friends (an important lesson explored in the film in a touching manner), examinations of how people challenge themselves in life, how people can push themselves to extremes despite those overwhelming odds, and how, sometimes, hopefully, in the end, people can overcome some or all of these obstacles, face life directly in the face, learn to live with themselves, learn their place in life, and come to terms with getting older, growing older, life’s challenges as time goes on, and your place in life.
These themes are explored in a subtle, touching and funny manner in “A Walk in the Woods,” and these themes are not trivial. And despite the fun and comedy and comedic situations, Kwapis, again, uses humor and insight to slyly, slightly, get these themes across in “Woods”—and that’s what helps makes this film excellent.
In the end, Bryson and Katz come to terms with the trail, their hike, nature, the forces of nature, themselves, each other, and, yes, their place in life and life in general. The characters do develop and grow, and they do learn from each other, and that’s a great thing to watch along the trail. Among the many life lessons in “Walk” is the subtle reminder that, no matter who you are, where you are, how smart or experienced you are, or how old you are—you can still learn from each other, from nature, from yourself, and from life. And that’s a good lesson to learn while heading out in late summer to take a walk in the woods—either in some real woods, or while sitting in a movie theater.
The film and these myriad lessons may just inspire you to decide to walk the approximately 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Or maybe just take a shorter walk. No matter the length of your walk, if you can make your trek as enjoyable as the story in Kwapis’ “A Walk in the Woods,” who knows, you may just gain a newfound appreciation of nature, the outdoors, people, yourself, the tides of time, your place in life—and life in general. It’s never too late to learn a life lesson or two.