It happened again. A film playing on less than 2,000 screens beat out the big bad wannabe blockbuster (“The Transporter Refueled,” which indeed is very bad) playing on over 3,000. That film is the Appalachian Trail travelogue “A Walk in the Woods,” and though it may not have gotten to your area yet, its box office performance this past weekend will likely result in an expansion, so it may soon be coming to a theater near you.
The film stars Robert Redford as Bill Bryson, an aging travel writer in need of some time away from society. There’s a lovely little section of the Appalachian Trail near his house and he’s inspired to walk the whole thing: over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. He’s not even making the trek for a book, it’s just something he needs to do for himself (though the movie is based on a book by the real Bill Bryson, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the movie ends with him deciding that he has another book in him after all). His wife (Emma Thompson) discourages the trip, citing his age, health, and numerous articles about the dangers of the trail. And she absolutely refuses to let him make the trip alone. He reaches out to just about everyone he knows unsuccessfully, until he’s contacted by long-lost acquaintance Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), who’s inexplicably happy to keep him company. Bill’s wife is dismayed – she meant that he was supposed to go with someone more able-bodied than himself, and Katz is in very poor shape. But Katz does fit the criteria for companionship, and so the two are off on a trip that nobody thinks they’ll be able to complete.
The rest of the film follows Bill and Katz as they push their bodies to the limit and get into all sorts of trouble along the way. Their missteps include a tumble into a river, a neck-deep waddle in muck, an encounter with a pair of grizzlies, harsh rain and snow, a potential affair for Bill, a potential affair for Katz, and a climactic fall off a precipice onto a precarious ledge. Although there is an emphasis on seclusion, they meet plenty of people on their journey, mostly fellow hikers who tell them they’re doing everything wrong.
The best thing about the movie is the chemistry between Bill and Katz. Bill is a know-it-all and Katz has a history of debauchery, but they have a way of bringing out the best in each other. It’s mostly funny stuff with the occasional touching moment thrown in. The worst thing about the movie is that very little of it is exciting. That list of potentially exciting things in the last paragraph amounts to minimally dramatic conflict at best. The movie is mostly just the two guys talking in the wilderness, which is fine if you’re up for a movie about two guys talking in the wilderness, but it’s a bit dry for everyone else. Also, even the talking may wear thin quickly for some viewers if they have a low tolerance for Nolte’s badly-beaten voice. Some will think there’s a seasoned charm to its scratchiness, others won’t be able to stand that it sounds like he’s snoring when he’s awake.
“A Walk in the Woods” is a perfectly OK movie for people who demand nothing more from their movies than that they be OK. It’s a nice enough break from the bombardment of action movies that the summer season typically supplies. Just know going in that this is a film that, much like the characters, takes the scenic route.
“A Walk in the Woods” is rated R for language and some sexual references. Its running time is 104 minutes.
Robert Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. He has been a published movie reviewer since 2006.