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A Walk in the Woods

September 2, 2015
A Walk in the Woods

Having watched basically this same story three times in as many years, finally we get to see the rich old white guy’s version. You know, if there’s one kind of movie we don’t see often enough it’s ones about well-established white guys going through mid-life crises.

Sarcasm aside, A Walk in the Woods just doesn’t have the same sort of trail-as-metaphor through-line that Wild and Hard Way Home did. It plays more like a simple, generally comedic travelogue of writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) and his friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) trying to walk the Appalachian Trail.

Redford and Nolte seem an odd choice here. The real Bryson was in his mid-forties when he published his book of the same title, while the movie’s Bryson and Katz reminisce about carousing in Europe “forty years ago”. If someone a little older than me hit the trail without working up to it, sure, he’s not going to finish the whole thing but he’ll be all right. The movie’s Bryson is pushing eighty, and it’s no wonder his wife (Emma Thompson) is terrified. Katz is even worse; Nolte’s face is beet-red before even starting the first climb, and he spends half the film looking like his heart is about to explode.

About Nolte: I know it’s stylish to make fun of him, but people forget just how great an actor he is. The moment Bryson sees Katz step off the small plane bringing him to New Hampshire is a wonder of physicality, drawing heavily on Buster Keaton. His distracted turns and unbalanced, pinwheeling arms instantly speak volumes about this character. Nolte’s performance may be the one thing about this movie I thoroughly, unreservedly enjoyed.

Back to the movie: Bryson and Katz are set up as an odd couple. Bryson’s wife won’t let him walk the trail alone, and Katz is the only person he knows willing to go along. Bryson is accomplished and, to put it bluntly, rich; Katz is a washed-up former alcoholic — or maybe not-so-former — who’s on the trip in part to avoid a couple outstanding warrants back in Des Moines. On one particular rest day off the trail, Bryson flashes Redford’s well-preserved face as he flirts with the owner of the motel they stay in (Mary Steenburgen), while Katz turns his eye to an overweight, over-made-up woman he meets in the laundromat (Susan McPhail), raising the ire of her angry, redneck husband. The classist shorthand just drips off the screen.

I haven’t read (the real) Bryson’s book, so I don’t know whether that sequence is even in there, or if it was inserted by writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman to fit this mismatched-buddy road movie story. If it’s in the book, I have to imagine it comes off less forced and awkward.

In fact, I’m pretty sure the whole feel of Bryson’s travel writing is different than what we see here. I know he uses his experiences on the trail to riff off into all sorts of natural history asides. It’s the sort of thing I’d probably enjoy reading, but it doesn’t really translate to the screen at all. Since Bryson can’t just turn to the audience — or he could, if director Ken Kwapis were more willing to embrace less-conventional storytelling modes — the only person left to hear his observations is Katz, who clearly doesn’t care much. The result is something like Steeve Coogan’s geological ramblings in The Trip, except that film makes it clear that it knows what a pretentious bore he’s being.

But the greatest problem with A Walk in the Woods is that the movie never figures out why Bryson is taking the walk in the first place. The real Bryson seems to have thought it would make a fascinating subject for a book, but the movie Bryson keeps insisting it’s not for a book. It seems clear there’s some sort of mid-life — or later-life — crisis driving him, but Redford never gives enough interiority to his portrayal of Bryson to figure out what’s driving this urge beyond a smarmy John Muir quote. It’s simply a felt need; a scratch without any particular itch. Yeah, he walked his trail, but I’m not sure even he knows where it led.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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