There’s something about hiking movies that seems to have become really popular among movie audiences as of late, or else we wouldn’t have already had 2 come out within the last 12 months. They offer a glimpse at the hardships of whatever trail is being hiked, a taste of the beauty, and the immense emotional and personal growth that comes from spending months trekking through the great outdoors. A Walk in the Woods is—in many ways—like other hiking movies that came before it; it has encounters with animals, humorous moments that show the traveller is by no means prepared to take on the trail, the chance meeting of a fellow hiker, and the unpredictability of the weather. But what makes A Walk in the Woods feel so fresh is that it makes light of these moments as two older men—who have no reason whatsoever to be making the trek—travel along the Appalachian Trail to rekindle their friendship.
Following an over-long and under-explained opening, author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) finds himself starting off on the Appalachian Trail with his friend, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) whom he has hardly spoken to in decades. Their unpreparedness and old age make us worry for them, and the movie teases some hardships and potentially frightening moments—but this isn’t a hiking movie about the perils of the trail; it’s about good times with good people.
Redford and Nolte make a formidable duo. Both of them crank out sarcastic, crotchety humor with excellent rapport that perfectly conveys their strained relationship that feels as though a lot has happened between them. Redford, proving his ageless charm, is wonderful. The only problem is, is we do not really get a lot of insight into his own reasoning behind the trip—or at least what it actually is does not really feel like a powerful enough motive to sacrifice months of his life on a hike. Nolte, the visibly unfit, though supposedly mentally capable companion, provides some of the movies more outlandish laughs as he wheezes his way along the trail. Unfortunately, at the end, there is no explanation as to what has become of both of the men.
Pacing is always a concern when it comes to hikes—or movies about hikes. The first step is to always establish the hike and the reason for it, which in this case has already proven to be a little ambiguous. The movie starts out slow, picks up its speed once the hike starts, and then ends all too quickly without—as I said before—information on anything that came after (we do not even get a word of the publishing of the book that was based on this hike.) Aside from Redford and Nolte, the supporting cast that features Emma Thompson (Bryson’s wife) Mary Steenburgen (a tempting proprietress from a motel), Nick Offerman (an REI salesman), and Kristen Schaal (an overbearing and annoying hiker) doesn’t stand out aside from a few laughs and they hardly move the plot forward. Their presence, however, feels as welcome to our us as they do to the travelers.
A Walk in the Woods is less of an emotionally draining hike than most of the other hike movies out there, and it really has fun with it. It’s pacing weighs it down some, but the journey feels worth it for the most part thanks to the snarky, dry humor that Nolte and Redford continually spat at each other, and its comparatively calm tone to other intense hike films that focus on the dangers. It may not be as inspiring as Into the Wild, or as reflective as Wild, but it sure makes you laugh and chuckle which makes for a splendidly nice change in a trail buddy.