A Walk in the Woods is literally like a walk in the woods with entertaining companions and sometimes annoying, sometimes helpful, meet-ups on the trail. Based on a memoir by Bill Bryson, the film shows Bill (Redford) as a little bored with his easy life and hatches the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail, which his wife (Thompson) begs him not to do, but if he insists, to take someone with him. After calling numerous friends, he is not able to find anyone until his old, currently estranged, friend Stephen (Nolte), hearing about the invitations via the grapevine, calls him up and invites himself along in such a way Bill cannot gracefully refuse. And since he is a kind, thoughtful, well-educated soul—and a little desperate—he agrees Stephen should come. (The film is remarkable in its portrayal of Bill as ambivalent; he’s not able to forsake his good breeding and principles, even though he is often repelled by the crudeness of Stephen. But the ending shows a resolution of this ambivalence in a warmly human way.)
We get our first introduction to Stephen when he arrives in a small plane, can barely fit through the door but gets through, dropping hat and bag, huffing and puffing, and stumbling out. When he walks, he has a noticeable limp. Again, Bill is the epitome of politeness and patience, and you shiver to think how these two are going to hike—not just walk—such a challenging route.
Of course, they will have many adventures and misadventures both on the trail and in towns along the way, many of which are laugh-out-loud humorous and some actually life-threatening. Stephen is the perfect foil for the refined Bill, by observing and talking crudely about things in the past and present that may appear to be obvious, but would ordinarily be brushed away by Bill. Therein lies some of the value of this story—that Bill seems to be learning, as he has done all his life, from new experiences; yet tolerates Stephen, seldom losing patience with him. Even when Stephen pokes fun at Bill’s intellectual sharpness and knowledge, Bill recognizes the good in Stephen and appreciates it.
Part of the reward of this film is watching gifted experienced actors like Redford and Nolte doing what they do best. They know the characters they’re portraying, and fit with them hand-in-glove. The director, Ken Kwapis (Big Miracle, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman do fine work in interspersing comedic moments into the action when it gets strenuous or alarming, and bringing in novel elements to keep us watching. For instance, one of my favorite character artists is Kristen Schaal, who appears on the trail as Mary Ellen, the “expert” in hiking who has no sense of tact or personal engagement. She does it so well, we—like Bill and Stephen—want to get away from her as fast as we can.
I think this film did what it set out to do, and the music by Nathan Larson and cinematography by John Bailey nicely complement the story. I understand Hollywood is attempting to increase appeal to older audiences which comprise a growing percentage of the theater going public (e.g., I’ll See you in my Dreams), and A Walk in the Woods fits nicely in that genre.
A walk in the woods to remember.