A Walk in the Woods full movie review - A Walk Worth Taking, and Remembering
To judge from the trailer for Robert Redford's new film, "A Walk in the Woods," one would expect the full-blown movie to be an hour and five minute's worth of puffery underperformed by one of the screen's most seminal and influential actors on a kind of cinematic bus man's holiday.
The trailer gets it entirely wrong. Redford, flashing irony and wit at once touching and humorous, gives a masterful, understated performance on love, aging, mortality, friendship, loneliness, alcoholism _ and, without sermonizing, the beauty and importance of nature itself.
On the surface, director Ken Kwapis' adaptation of Bill Bryson's 1998 memoir of the same title is a first-person story about an aging writer and educator (Redford as Bryson) in search of himself who sets out to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine with his old friend, Katz (Nick Nolte), with whom he has reunited after decades of estrangement.
Bryson's children _ and grandchildren _ are themselves growing older, and his friends are passing to their respective Great Rewards at an alarming rate.
Bryson, in fact, has just returned from the funeral of one such acquaintance _ where, after the deceased's widow thanks him for attending, he inadvertently blurts, "My pleasure" to the worried and absolute astonishment of his English wife Cathy (Emma Thompson) _ when he asks to take a short walk for a moment of reflection before coming into the house.
During those few minutes of pacing along a nearby hiking path, he sees a sign about the Appalachian Trail. His mind is made up.
His wife insists he not attempt the trek, but finally relents, saying he can go if he takes a friend, believing deep in her heart no one will accept the offer, and thus, her husband will stay home. At first, her strategy works. No one can be found to join Bryson on the trip. But then Katz, who has not been contacted but hears about the planned venture through the grapevine, calls to say he wants to go.
Bryson is trapped into meeting up and traveling with the pal he had a falling out with years earlier in Europe.
Katz, a wheezing, bedraggled hulk who upon arrival on a small plane barely squeezes through the aircraft's door and nearly destroys the step ladder on the way down with his weight, is more than a physical and intellectual counterpoint to Bryson. He is his true friend, and, as Bryson realizes to his own astonishment, worth rediscovering. What have the years done? What has he done? And more importantly, what can he do in the time he has left? It's a question we all pose to ourselves about our own relationships as we watch.
As the duo trudges north through rain, mud and snow, slipping, sliding, splashing and falling, they encounter a broad spectrum of humanity that illuminates and defines Bryson and Katz themselves. A totally obnoxious young backpacker (Kristen Schaal) they can't stand but refuse to hurt, a lonely and attractive innkeeper (Mary Steenburgen) who sweetly flirts with Bryson while looking after her addled mother, and various assorted hikers and denizens of the Trail and its nearby towns and businesses.
Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman's screenplay is deceptive. It's a quiet study of humanity dipped in humor and irony.
Kwapis, a successful sitcom expatriate whose most memorable big screen venture was perhaps the entertaining "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," consistently resists going too far and tastefully suggests the rigors of a hike without being gross or over the top.
Redford, as he has in his recent films "The Company You Keep" and "All Is Lost" (the latter netting him the New York Film Critics' Best Actor Award), continues to demonstrate in a classy, understated, natural way the sparkling culmination of talent honed over a 50-plus year career in film, TV and on Broadway. We tend to forget when hearing about the Sundance Festival and its multitudinous offshoots, or his many well-documented environmental endeavors, that this guy is a dynamite actor.
As Katz, this is Nolte's best work in years (he even seems to slim down, gain color and bounce as the hike progresses). Katz's talk with Bryson about his alcoholism, and Bryson's silent, wide-eyed recognition in finally understanding his old friend, is heartbreaking and real. It will resonate with audience members dealing with a loved one's addiction in ways unexpected. A gem of a moment.
Thompson is sexy, appealing and completely believable as Bryson's wife and soul mate, while Steenburgen hits just the right chord as a lovely woman dutifully meeting her obligations while staving off her own longings.
The film itself is scrumptiously photographed in widescreen HD by John Bailey and is supported by a perfectly executed Nathan Larson soundtrack that is punctuated by the gentle rock-folk songs of the indie band Lord Huron.
I give this film (rated R) an A-plus, and encourage you to see it with the whole family. You'll have a lot to talk about.