Tweetable Takeaway: A Walk in the Woods doesn’t reach any higher than a pleasing hike with two great actors.
In the latest movie featuring actors taking a long hike to come out in theaters, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte set out to meet Reese Witherspoon just as she finishes hiking her book adapted walk from Wild. With any luck, next year we’ll have Selena Gomez starring in Stephen King’s hiking in the forest adaptation, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It can even star one of the bears from A Walk in the Woods.
A Walk in the Woods consistently pleases, but never reaches any satisfying thematic conclusions. The movie ultimately equates to what a 90 minute hike with two fine actors as Robert Redford and Nick Nolte would be like: fun, meandering and slow at times, and without a grand climax.
Based on the book by Bill Bryson, Robert Redford stars as the author who decides to hike the Appalachian Trail. Consistently Bryson hears from his wife and others that he’s too old, too out of shape. But his mind is made up. As he says in the movie, “It’s just something I need to do.” Bryson wants a hiking buddy, and after calling up old friends and getting no biters, he receives a call from an old friend, Stephen Katz (played by Nick Nolte). Katz wants to take the hike with Bryson, and Bryson agrees, happy to have found a friend. It’s only when Katz steps off the plane that Bryson realizes it may have been a mistake. Katz limps, can barely speak, and immediately stuffs a powdered doughnut in his mouth. But if Bryson wants to take this hike, he has to take Katz.
What follows is an entertaining walk with two old men who run into all kinds of hijinks. Mostly jokes about how incapable the two are to take this trip. One would think this could be great fuel for the movie to push a satisfying story about defying expectations; that’s certainly the direction the movie hints at. However, too often the movie decides instead to create a humorous diversion. At one point Katz gets involved with an angry husband. Another has the two screaming at bears from their tents. Watching these interludes is all fine and entertaining at best, and meandering at worst. There’s no doubt that the movie could have built to something truly moving or uplifting, but its current state exists only as a fun distraction for a boring afternoon.
There’s never any true fear that Katz and Bryson are in any danger. The audience is reminded on multiple occasions just how dangerous this trail is, how even experienced hikers can’t finish it, and yet we never get a true sense of that. It’s a lack of realism that pushes the movie into almost slapstick territory at times. Sure, both men struggle mightily in their first quarter mile, and it’s great to see, because that’s how two out of shape older men would begin a hike.
The rest of the trek? The movie makes it look like a breeze for the two. They trip on a walk, though anyone could do that. There’s some juicy tension just waiting to be squeezed out that comes from a couple old geezers going on a multi-month trip. That tension existed in All is Lost with Robert Redford. The audience watches as Redford’s character struggles to get up and down a couple stairs on the boat, and wonders, How the heck will this guy survive a shipwreck? In A Walk in the Woods, Redford and Nolte’s characters still do struggle with those first couple steps of the hike, but afterwards the movie throws that out on the forest floor like so much litter.
The two seem to have an endless supply of food and water, walk through a blizzard and suddenly have winter jackets, and Bryson’s research seems to only extend to the grisly stories of death his wife printed out for him. There’s elliptical editing omitting showing all these boring details, no doubt, but when the movie spends at least 5 of its minutes in a sporting goods store showing Bryson buying an overpriced backpack and tent, it’s hard to let other basics of survival slip by so easily. Surrounded by so much nature and away from civilization, tiny things like food and water become much more magnified. So when the two find themselves marooned on a cliff ledge and the movie tries to argue, this looks like it’s the end for these two, it’s hard to feel any worry due to all the events that have preceded.
A Walk in the Woods lets these opportunities slip by, but it’s hard not to be charmed by Nick Nolte and Robert Redford regardless. It’s frustrating knowing the film could have built to something far more emotionally moving than what it is. Some of that is due to being held back by the source material. Perhaps the film should have abandoned the true story more. Spoiler for those who don’t know how it ends and don’t want to know follows: Bryson and Katz don’t actually finish the hike. Which might be okay had it been written differently. There might still have been some emotional payoff. That would need to change Bryson and Katz’s reasons for doing the hike to begin with. Again, Bryson only says it’s something he has to do. There’s not much more goal-striving than that, which lowers the stakes for the movie itself. What does Bryson hope to accomplish?
The movie argues that he just kind of wants to walk the trail on a whim. And that’s just what he does. Unfortunately, that’s not crazily compelling stuff. I kind of want to do things all the time on a whim. Whether or not I actually do them ends up being inconsequential to my life. As pleasing and enjoyable as A Walk in the Woods can be, it ends up being that same sort of inconsequential stuff.
I give A Walk in the Woods 3 grizzly Nick Noltes out of 5
Score: 3 out of 5
Wil Loper | Contributor