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A Walk in the Woods ••
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Director: Ken Kwapis
Screenplay: Rick Kerb, Bill Holderman
Adventure/Comedy/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: September 2, 2015
This review should be pretty easy; quite a walk in the woods.
At Redford’s and Nolte’s age, it should have been called Walkers in the Woods. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), a retired writer in his 70s who hasn’t produced much in the last 10 years. He attends a funeral where he realizes that there are fewer days ahead than behind. After taking a walk along a part of the Appalachian Trail, he determines to walk the entire length of the trail – some 2,200 miles. He makes calls to his old buddies only to find that all of them think he is crazy.
All but one of them. Bill’s old friend Stephen (Nick Nolte) gives him a call, saying he’s interested. Bill hadn’t even considered inviting Stephen, who has always been a hard-drinking, womanizing wild-card. But Bill’s wife (Emma Thompson) insists that he go with someone, so Bill and Stephen set out on the trail. Soon they are deep into woods and up to their saggy, craggy necks in danger. Sort of.
Scott, A Walk in the Woods is sort of a geriatric version of Wild. We have a couple of unlikely men who are quite old to be going on a 2,200 mile hike. It’s a pretty low-key story with a few yucks and a bit of angst. There really isn’t a lot in this story to hate, nor to love. It’s very middle of the road. There’s a nice bit of excitement when a young hiker with a lot of energy arrives and tells the two everything they’re doing wrong. Played by Kristen Schaal, it’s a funny bit as she is wrong about half of what she says and incorrect about the rest.
This is a classic buddy story. Bryson is a very conservative, by-the-book sort of guy. Stephen is untidy to the extreme. He’s not just a messy person, but he lives his life without a concern for what comes next. He hasn’t planned for the future and he is aimless in his pursuits. This creates a tension between him and Bryson and comes to a climax when the two men come close to quitting the hike. Bryson blows up at Stephen and says he doesn’t want to end his life the way Stephen has lived his – by quitting when the going gets tough.
You’ve pretty much described it, Greg. A Walk in the Woods is a story about two old buddies who have nothing in common except a desire to prove they are still alive and relevant. People seem to gravitate to stories about heroes going on a daring physical adventure to escape reality or to prove a point. Greg, you mention the film Wild, and that’s a prime example. This movie is cut from the same cloth. I suspect this film is telling us that aging baby boomers still need to feel relevant.
A Walk in the Woods is the first buddy movie I’ve seen in a long, long time in which the two buddies don’t initially hate each other. That’s usually the pattern, with the story centering on the building of a friendship. In this movie, the only possible wedge between the men is an old $600 bet that has never been paid, but that bet is not a sticking point at all. There are lots of scenes with the two men bantering about the old days. The bickering you mention, Greg, seems a little too manufactured. I guess there can be no movie without some conflict, even if it’s a bit contrived.
There aren’t a lot of secondary characters. There are ancillary hikers walking by, or a cute waitress here or there. But aside from Schaal’s annoying know-it-all, we don’t get a lot of interaction with others. Nature makes a nice adversary for our heroes as they look at the 2,200 miles stretching ahead of them and realize that they’ve only travelled a quarter mile. It’s a simple story with minimum of conflict and interactions.
I didn’t like A Walk in the Woods as much as I enjoyed Wild. There was less of an inner conflict for our main character, Bryson than we had in Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl. In that film, Cheryl is dealing with the loss of her mother and a life not fully lived. Bryson, on the other hand, is an accomplished man. And we’re reminded of this by the contrast of his buddy Stephen. There’s just not a lot of inner conflict and the outer conflict is very haphazard. I give A Walk in the Woods just 2 out of 5 Reels.
As I mentioned, there’s not a lot of depth to the two characters we’re given here. If you’re going to present two men and Nature as the three characters in your story, you’re going to have to give me a lot of character development in the leads. We just don’t get that here. Also, when you have a weak villain, you have a weak hero. The Appalachian trail was portrayed as all too easy. So it didn’t bring out the worst or best in our heroes. I give Bryson and Stephen just 2 out of 5 Heroes.
And we’ve already discussed the fact that there were very few secondary characters. Schaal’s character was fun for a minute and was mercifully removed before she got to be too annoying. Nature as the villain was too kind. And the nameless faceless other hikers didn’t really add to the story. I give them just 2 out of 5 Cast points.
The hero story is not a bad one in that we have two old guys who still have important things to learn about themselves. I mention “relevance”, and that’s certainly a part of it, but there is also learning about nature, about pushing oneself to one’s limits, about facing and overcoming danger, and about acceptance. Both men do undergo a subtle but important transformation; they get exactly what they need from this hero’s journey.
The secondary characters are, as you say, barely worth mentioning. Emma Thompson, the wife, has absolutely no on-screen chemistry with Robert Redford. I can overlook this issue, as first and foremost this is a story about a pair of hiking geezers. The minor characters who appear here and there on the trail have the same depth and dimensionality as the two bears who attacked the men’s camp. The one mentor figure is the implied presence of the late, great naturalist John Muir, who Redford quotes as having said that sometimes you just have to go on a hike.
Overall, A Walk in the Woods is light fare. It’s the kind of movie that you can fully understand and appreciate with it playing in the background while you’re cooking dinner and have a conversation with a friend. That’s not exactly high praise. So my rating of 2 Reels out of 5 should come as no surprise.
As I’ve mentioned, there are subtle transformations in our two heroes as a result of their hike. These changes are not terribly profound, as they learn things like “the galaxy is vast”, “rocks take a long time to form and erode”, and “species of trees come and go”. Nothing terribly deep is to be found here. I give the heroes a rating of 2 out of 5. And because the two bears were the most interesting supporting characters, I give the overall support team a rating of 2 out of 5 as well.