During this past summer, a friend of mine and I went to the movies; during which we saw a preview for “A Walk in the Woods”. At that moment my friend and I both looked at each other, rolled our eyes and groaned. However, while we looked upon this movie with resentment, the two elderly women in front of us seemed generally excited.
The film stars Robert Redford as Bill Bryson, a renowned travel writer who decides he wants to take one last adventure in hiking the Appalachian Trail. His wife (Emma Thompson) and family all think it’s a terrible idea. “You’re too old!” they tell him but Bryson isn’t listening. Eventually, Nick Nolte comes into the picture as Stephen Katz, an old hiking buddy of Bryson’s who seems even less qualified to take this trip. Together, the two men head off on the trail and have many merry misadventures along the way.
Perhaps the reason this movie fails to work for me is because I am not the right audience member for this kind of picture. This is obviously the kind of movie targeted toward an elderly audience; as clearly demonstrated by the fact that I was the only one under 50 in the theater. This is one of those “I’m old but I can still do things” movies. Elderly audience members are likely attracted because it gives them a sense of enthusiasm; a feeling that they can still do anything. However, the heavy-handedness at which these movies are often displayed makes them nauseating to nearly any other audience member.
This also seems like an odd movie for both Redford and Nolte. Both are screen legends and neither one needs to prove that they are relevant. Redford in particular continues to direct his own personal projects and deliver top notch performances in other people’s movies. A few years ago he starred in “All is Lost”; a movie that had him playing a man lost alone at sea, requiring him to deliver a performance almost entirely with facial expressions. If any movie proved Redford is still a star capable of giving top-notch performances, it was that one.
The movie’s second problem is that it never visually communicates any of the beauty or hardships these men face along their journey. All through the movie we are told that the Appalachian Trial is something that even the most skilled hikers struggle to complete. However, throughout the entire movie, the journey that Katz and Bryson seems like little more than a peaceful stroll through the woods. We also don’t get any kind of sweeping landscape shots and some of the shots we do get look as though the actors are on a soundstage or in front of green screen. Compare this to “Wild” last year, which had Reese Witherspoon going on her own hiking journey, and results seem artificial.
However, ultimately the biggest problem is that this is a movie about nothing. The two men hike and chitchat but by the time the credits begin to roll there has been nothing on screen to tell us why this trip matters. Katz and Bryson never have a moment of examining life or any moment of internal change brought upon by this trip. Bryson himself never even makes it clear why he wants to attempt this trek. Katz has a moment that vaguely deals with alcoholism but, because he has been in control of this area of his life for so long, the scene lacks any depth or tension.
In “Wild” we got a clear sense at why Witherspoon’s character was taking her hike and most of these kind of movies have some purpose to the journey or change the characters must make in themselves. “A Walk in the Woods” has none of these thing, giving its sentimentality an artificial feeling that one would find in a Hallmark channel movie. At one point in time Redford was planning on doing this movie with Paul Newman. The movie was to be sold as the return of these two acting giants together, seeing as they both co-starred in classics such as “The Sting” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Maybe that movie would have kind-of worked as a sort of reunion tour but without Newman the movie just seems empty.