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New Release Review - A WALK IN THE WOODS

Big screen adaptation of Bill Bryson's bestseller.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ken Kwapis

Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman




"Ken Kwapis's film is more of a casual stroll than an exhausting hike, and he struggles to visually convey the wonder of the geographical setting (the heavy use of green-screen backdrops doesn't help), but the real landscape of this film isn't that of the Appalachians; rather, it's the leathered faces of two screen greats."






Travel writer Bill Bryson must be pretty chuffed with this screen adaptation of his 1998 account of his attempt to hike the famed Appalachian Trail. Not only can he retire on the money it will bring him, but he finds himself played by no less an icon than Robert Redford, which has to be the most flattering casting since Helen Mirren played Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville. Bryson may have been merely in his forties when he hiked the trail, but I'm pretty sure a forty-something Bryson would have happily traded his looks for those of a 78-year-old Redford (this thirty-something film reviewer certainly would).
The film opens with Redford's Bryson enduring a daytime TV interview from hell, before being forced to attend a funeral with his wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson). While skipping outside to avoid inane conversation, Bryson spots a signpost for the Appalachian Trail, and immediately sets his mind on attempting the hike - a gruelling task that will take five months, should he complete it, which very few hikers do - despite the understandable protestations of his better half, who convinces him to at least take a travelling companion along for safety reasons. When none of his friends agree to accompany him, Bryson receives a call from Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend whose alcoholism led the two men to drift apart. Lacking options, Bryson agrees to let Katz tag along, and the men set off on a highly daunting quest.
There's a scene in A Walk in the Woods in which the two men find themselves trapped on a ledge on the side of a cliff. Redford looks over the edge to see a raging stream far below. We immediately recall Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and we become struck with the fear that the movie is about to have one of its characters reference said film, given how much of today's cinema is infected by crude nostalgia. Thankfully, A Walk in the Woods isn't that sort of film. On the surface, it's at times bawdy, sometimes veering dangerously close to the tone of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and the two men indulge in the sort of offensive banter you'd expect from American men of their generation, but everything that's great about the film remains unspoken.
The two men bicker and talk themselves up, but their faces betray their true feelings. And what faces! The decision to age the characters by three decades pays off in spades, as a 78-year-old face simply has so much more to convey than one half that age, and Redford and Nolte's wrinkles outnumber the growth rings of some of the Appalachian Trail's oldest trees. There's a wonderful moment when Katz first arrives at Bryson's home. Observing his friend's many wall mounted literature awards, Nolte's face does something quite remarkable, his mouth smiling in admiration and pride, his eyes betraying his own sense of inadequacy. You can't help feel that, should the real life Nolte ever find himself in Redford's house, his own reaction may not be entirely dissimilar. Watching Nolte struggle to tackle a small hill is, in its own way, as cinematic as watching Tom Cruise hang off the side of a plane.
We've become accustomed to seeing characters of this age portrayed in a patronising manner, but A Walk in the Woods treats its protagonists with dignity, even if they don't always treat themselves in the same way. Ken Kwapis's film is more of a casual stroll than an exhausting hike, and he struggles to visually convey the wonder of the geographical setting (the heavy use of green-screen backdrops doesn't help), but the real landscape of this film isn't that of the Appalachians; rather, it's the leathered faces of two screen greats. I won't spoil how far Bryson and Katz get down the trail, but unless the borderline misogynistic dialogue (the excision of which would have felt very disingenuous) proves too off-putting, you'll definitely make it to the movie's end.



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