A Walk in the Woods

Perhaps it’s because baby boomers like to reshape every age demographic they enter, but there seem to be more and more movies featuring the 60+ set. Broadening Hollywood’s standards of who can carry a compelling story and make money at it can only be a good thing. A Walk in the Woods is the latest entry into that category, a “road trip” type film starring actors whose heydays coincided with the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan years.

Even if some parts of this based-on-a-true-story film were rearranged, fictionalized or altered completely, this is a movie, not a documentary, and the emotional trajectory is a satisfying one.

Robert Redford (guess his real age—I’ll tell you later) plays Bill Bryson, a longtime author who’s hit a bit of a dull patch now that he’s in his early 60s. He’s married to a bright, energetic woman (Emma Thompson), but in spite of his fulfilling family life, he’s restless. His social engagements seem to involve talking about ailments and waiting in lines to express condolences to the grieving. One day, he hits upon the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail and can’t seem to shake the conviction that he needs to do this.

His wife is appalled, his kids disbelieving, and when he searches for a trail buddy all his friends laugh him off the phone. Then he gets a call from Stephen Katz, a guy he hasn’t seen since they were young studs schlepping (and sleeping) their way across Europe. In Bryson’s words, he and Katz got on each other’s nerves in Europe, and hated each other by the end. But as Katz is the only taker for Bryson’s trip up the AT (and since his wife won’t let him go alone), the not-quite-as-dynamic-as-they-once-were duo sets off.

Even playing an introverted thinker, Redford can’t hide his legendary charm. The role doesn’t demand much of him as an actor—other than the physical work of hiking rocks and streams. Instead, it plumbs his character’s motivations: Is this odyssey a simple late-life crisis? A cry against the dying of the light? Or does he simply want to get out and do after decades of sedentary living?

Someone dug Nick Nolte out of mothballs and gave him the part as the irascible, recovering alcoholic Steven Katz. You’d never guess by looking that he’s five years younger than Robert Redford, but hard living and a movie role where he’s supposed to look like a pair of old yardwork shoes will do that to a man. Katz’s ability to hike the trail for a few hours, let alone weeks upon weeks strains credibility, but he is evidently a closer match to the real-life man behind Katz than Redford is to Bryson.

A Walk in the Woods is based on the 1998 bestseller by the same name, which in turn was a true story. However, detailing the inevitable differences from the book might spoil some viewers’ enjoyment of the movie, so instead I will say that the filmmakers’ choices make the film work from beginning to end. Even if some parts were rearranged, fictionalized or altered completely, this is a movie, not a documentary, and the emotional trajectory is a satisfying one. Some may wish the language could have been toned down—a lot of the cursing is unnecessary (though perhaps true to character). This otherwise easygoing film’s R rating is entirely reliant on several discussions about sex, an offscreen sexual encounter, and the crude language.

Trail enthusiasts probably won’t find much of the smaller joys and trials of being a thru-hiker in this movie. It tends to focus on the big stuff—the blue-layered Appalachian vistas and inevitable mishaps—as well as a number of breaks from the rigors of trail life in the form of restaurants, hitchhiking, and motels. Still, there is enough here to keep audiences engaged, and even laughing helplessly as two guys who were young and stupid together discover they can be old and stupid together, too.

And Robert Redford? He’s 79.