Two old friends hiking the Appalachian Trail find they have more to contemplate than the pretty scenery: their own mortality, for starters. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in the movie adaptation of Bill Bryson’s travel book, A Walk in the Woods.
The walk in the woods Robert Redford as the real-life writer Bill Bryson takes in the movie A Walk in the Woods doesn’t begin outdoors when Bryson and his old boyhood friend Katz (Nick Nolte) step onto the Appalachian Trail to start their planned twenty-one hundred mile hike from Georgia to Maine. It begins in a funeral home when Bryson walks out on a friend’s wake. The symbolism is a little too pat, but this is what Bryson’s trying to do for the whole rest of the movie: walk away from death.
Of course this can’t be done, and in truth, Bryson is doing the opposite. A walk into the woods, in myth and fairy tale, is a walk into the the underworld. From the Grail legends to Dante to Hansel and Gretel to Hawthorne to Harry Potter, the woods are where heroes and heroines go to meet Death face to face.
To put it more psychoanalytically, the woods are where characters symbolically confront the fact of their own mortality and come to terms with it.
A Walk in the Woods is a rather cheerful movie considering it’s carrying the weight of that morbid theme in its pack.
You might think it’s also a rather too ordinarily realistic movie to be burdened with such heavy symbolism.
How, you might ask, did King Arthur and Young Goodman Brown get into a movie about a pair of irascible old coots walking themselves in and out of comedic mishaps and misadventures, the worst of which leaves them with some bumps and bruises?
Well, it’s a good bet they got in there by virtue of the movie’s being watched by a pretentious college instructor with a habit of letting his mind wander during the slow spots. But I don’t think that’s it.
The thing about myths is that they resonate with us because so many moments of our lives recapitulate them.
At one time or another, we all take that walk in the woods.
Going in, I was worried A Walk in the Woods would be a tedious series of “We’re too old for this” gags at Redford and Nolte’s expense. But there’s very little of that. That they are too old for this is a given. We know it. They know it. They don’t need that proved to them.
Bryson and Katz go into the woods to confront the fact of their mortality and come to terms with it. But they don’t do it by tumbling into ice cold streams and rolling off cliffs and facing down hungry black bears or running from irate jealous husbands and turning down offers of a night of romance with hotel operators who look like Mary Steenburgen.
They do it by unavoidably talking about it. All of their conversations along the trail are, one way or another, about aging and death. This is done matter of factly, often with humor, occasionally with sentimentality, now and again with accidental poetry. They don’t talk about it to dwell on it or to philosophize or to feel sorry for themselves (although that naturally happens, the dwelling, philosophizing, and self-pity). They talk about it because they talk about what’s going on and what’s going on is that two old men who used to be best friends are taking on an adventure that they’re both, well, too old for.
They also do it by slowly, and almost unconsciously forgiving each other for not having turned out to be the heroes they once thought themselves to be, each to himself and each to the other.
Redford and Nolte have a great time working together and it’s fun to watch them at it. They have the instinctive, easy-going camaraderie of old friends and play off each other beautifully. It’ll make you wish they’d made at least one other movie together back when both were in their primes. In fact, they make such a good team it’s hard to believe they haven’t made more movies together and not just one other, 2012’s The Company You Keep. (In that one, they established a lifelong friendship between their two characters in one, short nearly wordless scene at a counter in a diner.) Watching the two together is a good reason to see A Walk in the Woods. It’s not the only reason. Unfortunately, there aren’t many others.
Katz becomes Bryson hiking companion by a sad process of elimination. One by one, Bryson’s current friends turn down his invitation to join him on the trail, all of them because they don’t feel up to it. Katz isn’t up to it either, but he has nothing better to do except wait around at home for the police to come by to pick him up for a couple of outstanding warrants for drinking and drug related offenses. The two have more or less have lost touch since their one big adventure together back in their twenties when they backpacked around Europe. Something happened on that trip that convinced Bryson he needed to break off their friendship. We’re not told exactly what---and it may not have been one, single thing---but it probably involved Katz’s tendency to let his youthful indulgences get out of hand.
In the forty-odd years since, Katz hasn’t changed and Bryson has and one of the first things they discover on the trail, after it’s too late to turn back, is that neither one likes that fact about the other. But it’s also the case, to their own surprise, that neither likes that fact about himself. Bryson gets to wondering if he gave up his life of wild nights, wild nights too soon, while Katz begins to face the sad truth that he held onto his far too long.
What this means is that both Bryson and Katz have committed to spending months in the woods in the company of the ghosts of their young selves and the specters of the selves they might have been, each seeing in the other the path not chosen and the life he could have had.
Unavoidably, then, as the two get to know each other again and, inevitably, become friends again, their conversation includes outbursts of recrimination, resentment, regret, and relief of the “Thank God I’m not like you!” variety.
Again, this sounds awfully heavy and profound for what's really a lighthearted and pleasant little diversion of a movie whose main point of enjoyment is watching these two old stars having fun playing off each other. But comedy always implies tragedy and the film’s weakness isn’t its inclusion of such dark and gloomy themes but its failure to be funny enough about them.
There aren’t many good jokes in A Walk in the Woods. There aren’t many bad ones, either, which is a relief. But a lack of good jokes is a problem for a comedy. Not an unsolvable one. Wit and humor can be expressed in ways besides wisecracks. But it requires writers to be inventive and playful in their use of language and incident, and A Walk in the Wood’s screenwriters, Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman, aren’t notably either.
Bryson and Katz do a lot of talking---from Nolte’s entrance to his exit, the movie is pretty much a one long conversation interrupted now and then by bad weather and bears, and it could be titled A Talk in the Woods---and they say a lot of interesting things. They just don’t say it in interesting ways. They use a great many words but the words don’t sing.
This is true not just for Bryson and Katz but for just about every character.
None of them comes alive through the words they use.
The dialog is natural, conversational, occasionally witty, but never surprising. None of it is particularly revealing. Nobody tells us anything about themselves in a non-expository way. Nothing anyone says about who they are or what they think is news to us or to the characters saying it themselves. They're never carried away by a thought or forced to follow one in an unexpected direction. They don't find themselves forced to think back on something that just popped out. We don't get a sense of who they are by how they use words or how words use them.
The exception is Bryson’s wife Catherine who is played by the delightful and surprising as usual Emma Thompson. Catherine does seem to be making it up as she talks, possibly because Thompson was making it up as she went. You never can be sure with her. She can make Shakespeare sound like inspired improvisation. No other character, not even Bryson, and he’s a writer, uses words as creatively. Words just tumble out of her, playfully, intelligently, with true wit and purpose, and to telling effect.
Meanwhile, Arndt and Holderman don’t make up for what the dialog lacks by being creative and inventive with incident. Most of what they make happen is all too predictable.
These aren't really spoilers coming up because Bryson and Katz don’t make a move you can’t see coming a mile away. But...
If there's a stream to cross, they'll fall in. If there's mud to step in, they'll sink in up to their knees. If they hitch a ride, the driver of the car that picks them up will be a menace behind the wheel. If there's a storm warning, they'll ignore it to their immediate regret in the very next shot. If there’s a bunk bed they have to share, then the overweight Katz will heave himself into the top bunk and you can guess what happens next. And if someone joins them on their way, that someone will be someone they don't want with them for good reason and who will have to be ditched in a desperate, comedic gambit.
The predictability of incident isn't compensated for by an unpredictability of characters coming and going.
Bryson and Katz aren’t alone in the woods. The foot traffic on the trail is busy. But they don’t get to know many of the people they meet. In fact, most of the characters they encounter aren’t characters as much as they are messengers from the screenwriters. They show up to pass on information necessary to moving the story along and then quickly disappear. The very few who have stories of their own don’t add much to the main story or to our sense of what the character and culture of the community of hikers who populate the trail is like. The movie doesn’t try to answer the question “What eccentric cross-section of America is out there and why?” Ardnt and Holderman and director Ken Kwapis don’t even to seem to notice it’s a question to ask.
Which is a strange lapse of attention considering the real Bill Bryson has made his name visiting various places and reporting back on who’s out there and why.
Nick Offerman shows up too briefly as the sales clerk in the hiking and camping supply store to exhibit the kind of competence, knowledge, and obsessiveness Bryson should have if he’s serious about making the hike but also to exhibit it in a pompous and overbearing way that makes him hard to take seriously. Mary Steenburgen appears, also too briefly, as the lonely proprietress of a trailside motel mainly to exude and elicit longings that can’t be fulfilled. And Kristen Schaal comes along, unfortunately not briefly enough, to annoy the hell out of Bryson and Katz and us as a self-absorbed know-it-all and nonstop talker meant to be amusingly maddening but who is un-comedically pathetic---it’s actually a rather cruel piece of writing and Schaal plays it for all it’s worth, gleefully collaborating with the screenwriters to make a monster of vanity and obliviousness out of a type of person whom if we met in real life we’d feel sorry for, even if we couldn’t wait to escape her company.
Thompson isn’t met on the trail. She doesn’t come along. She’s left behind, too soon and for too long. But, as I said, she’s delightful and surprising as always and she’s given much more to do with her too brief screen time than stand around and be the wifely voice of doom, although that is part of her role. Which is fine, because that gives her the most opportunity to play with words.
Pauline Kael, who had an inexplicable bee in her bonnet when it came to writing about Redford, thought his characters were always too much in love with themselves to be in love with anyone else. I think it’s been more the case that he’s needed leading ladies who could draw him out and force him to pay attention. The only two of his past leading ladies who were better at this than Thompson is in A Walk in the Woods were Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand.
Some fans would argue to put Meryl Streep at the top of that short list but that whole movie left me cold.
Thompson and Redford work beautifully together to paint as near a perfect portrait of a happy marriage as I can remember seeing in a movie. The Brysons are one of those old married couples it’s impossible to imagine as a young couple in love because it’s impossible to imagine them as having been any different than they are now. They have been so good at working together to deal with whatever life’s thrown at them and adapting to changes in their situation and in each other that whatever they are at any given moment in time is just the right way for them to be. And it’s inadequate or somehow off the mark to say that after all this time they’re still in love. What they are more than anything is still in like.
The problem is that Bill has suddenly and inexplicably become hard to like. And that’s Thompson’s job in A Walk in the Woods, to make us see that as a problem needing a two hour movie to solve.
One of the better things about Arndt and Holderman’s script is that it doesn’t include long speeches filling us in on the backstory. It’s left to Thompson to make us realize that there’s been something wrong and that there’s been a change in Bryson. He’s not responding to her and to other people and situations the way he should and normally would have. This is a husband and wife who have always understood each other and with the slightest of passing frowns and startled glances Thompson conveys Catherine’s consternation at his suddenly not being understandable, which to her is as indicative and worrisome as a persistent cough. Her concern follows him out onto the trail where it becomes our concern and makes his progress through the landscape more than the landscape itself the thing to keep an eye on. We’re watching him and watching out for him on behalf of Catherine.
The landscape is worth keeping an eye on, though.
A Walk in the Woods is as pretty to look at as you'd expect. To their credit, director Ken Kwapis and his director of photography John Bailey don't overdo on the nature and landscape photography. The scenery is there to be looked at and admired because it's there and it's beautiful. But there are only a few moments when the storytelling pauses in its tracks so Kwapis and Bailey can send us a cinematic postcard with the note "Some view, huh?"
On the other hand, they don't make much use of the landscape to bring the Trail itself alive in the way director Jean-Marc Vallée and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger brought the Pacific Crest Trail to life in last year’s Academy Award nominee Reese Witherspoon vehicle Wild.
In Wild, the story of another writer taking on a grueling adventure of self-discovery, the PCT is practically the second main character, the some of the time antagonist, some of the time friend (a demanding friend) to Witherspoon’s character, author Cheryl Strayed. We’re made to consider the trail as a constant series of problems for Strayed to solve. We see and feel the changes in the terrain and the challenges they present and are made to think along with Strayed as she deals with them.
In A Walk in the Woods, the Appalachian Trail is just the setting. It’s there to provide obstacles for our heroes to get up, get over, get around, or get through in not particularly creative, surprising, suspenseful, thrilling, or funny ways.
Despite all this, A Walk in the Woods is an enjoyable movie, if you like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson, and I happen to like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. Some movies are really only about watching their stars do their usual good jobs.
And Nolte, I think, does more than his usual good job.
Redford, who produced the film, originally intended direct it himself with the plan being he would star alongside his old friend Paul Newman. It was to be a last ride for Butch and Sundance, a final big score for Hooker and Gondorf. Sadly, Newman became too sick and frail before they could get the project got underway.
But while Newman would have had a grand time playing Katz and we’d have had a grand time watching him having a grand time, he would have been acting and his Katz would have been a character.
Nolte’s Katz is a self-portrait.
I’ve always thought of Nolte and Redford have had something more than parallel careers. Nolte’s screen persona has seemed to me to be an extension of Redford’s. It’s almost as if Nolte was invented to take on roles Redford could easily have played but was too busy as an actor, director, producer, or environmental and political activist to handle himself at the time. In fact, at one point Redford held the rights to the novel The Prince of Tides and was going to re-team with Streisand in the movie adaptation. Go through the list of Nolte’s credits from the late 70s through the 90s and it’s easy to pick out role after role you can imagine Redford fitting and handling just as well. The Deep, Cannery Row, Teachers, Weeds, Under Fire, Cape Fear (I really would have like to have seen that one), The Prince of Tides. Not North Dallas Forty, though. Redford’s too small to have played a professional football player. And not Down and Out in Beverly Hills, because he’d never have seen himself as that down and out. And that’s just it.
There’s a reason there’s nothing on the order of Affliction on Redford’s acting resume.
He was always a little too cool, too cautious, too calculated in his choice of parts and in his approach to playing them.
Nolte was edgier, more daring, more willing to take risks as an actor and with his image as a leading man. The result is that there is something on the order of Affliction on his acting resume.
But, by the same token, the result has been a career that’s added up to that of a great character actor. He’s never been the star and icon that Redford has. It’s not at all that next to Redford he’s a failure. It’s simply that as a star he’s far outshined.
And the risk-taking and reckless side of his nature that has served him well as an actor, if not as a star, has come close to ruining him as a person. And next to Redford, he is, if not a failure as a human being, he is a near complete wreck of one.
But Nolte’s willingness to put that wreck on display next to Redford, who, one year shy of eighty, is anything but a wreck, is not just admirable, it makes A Walk in the Woods worth taking seriously despite its mainly flaws and lapses.
Nolte lets his wild life and hard times inform his portrayal of Katz to the point that it’s impossible to tell where Nolte leaves off and Katz begins. His Katz is practically his infamous mug shot animated. And when Katz talks honestly about his many mistakes and misadventures, there’s a sense that it’s Nolte not Katz who is delivering an act of confession.
All those dark and heavy themes I mentioned at the top of this post are carried by Nolte, weighing him down more than all his extra poundage, but not stopping him or even seeming to slow him down. He’s red-faced, out of breath, hurting in every joint and limb, but he’s still exuberant, lustful, gluttonous, and determined to deny old age, time, and death have any claim on him.
Katz is Nolte’s Falstaff. And the thing to remember about Falstaff is that, even though he’s one of the greatest comic characters in the history of literature, he’s one of the greatest tragic characters, as well.
For further reading around the campfire:
Redford and Nolte together again for the first time in The Company You Keep.
Not that it's a crowded field, but here's my review of the best movie about an old coot on a hike, The Way: Martin Sheen hits his stride.
And my review of Wild: A very small person alone in a great big indifferent world.
A Walk in the Woods, directed by Ken Kwapis, screenplay by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman. Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, and Kristen Schaal. Rated R. Still in theaters.