by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
“A Walk in the Woods” is, as the title implies, a somewhat leisurely, discursive movie. Based on Bill Bryson’s non-fiction account of his attempt to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, it stars Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as his hiking companion, Stephen Katz. Redford held the option on the book since 1998, a project which he hoped to complete with Paul Newman in the Katz role.
Happily, Nolte is one of the major delights of the film, playing an alcoholic down and outer who accepts Bryson’s (sort of) invitation to join him largely in order to avoid 30 days in jail. Overweight, profane and raw, he is a perfect foil to the successful Bryson’s sophisticated, urbane character. Their exchanges, often barbed, constitute much of the appeal, as there isn’t a whole lot of what we have come to call “action.” (No sex or violence or nudity, either: the “R” rating is exclusively for language, which is bawdily appropriate.)
Also fun to watch are a number of well-known female actors who punctuate the walk. As Bryson’s wife, Katherine, Emma Thompson strikes a nice balance between concern over her husband’s somewhat absurd mission — “Promise me you won’t die,” she says as she kisses him goodbye — and acceptance of his need to do it. And Bryson remains faithful to her when confronted by a veiled seduction effort by a motel owner/manager (played by Mary Steenburgen) on the journey. My favorite, though, is Kristen Schaal as a young know-it-all hiker the men have to deal with and escape from.
There are, to be sure, accidents, pratfalls, narrow escapes from bears, humiliations by the young, collapsing bunk beds and other comic bits. But the interplay between the two principals is the main attraction: they trade memories, reveal something to each other, quarrel, and laugh a lot. Bryson’s resolve to finish the 2,180-mile hike and Katz’s grumbling protests set up most of the tension, which is neatly resolved at the end by a series of postcards.
The screenplay by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman doesn’t quite catch Bryson’s tone in the book, but that is an extraordinarily difficult thing for film versions to do, in any case. The script also fails to give sufficient time to Bryson’s musing over the threat to the American forest through which the travelers pass, reducing it to a few moments of talk.
Counterbalancing that is cinematographer John Bailey’s capturing of the magnificent landscape that dwarfs the humans in repeated aerial shots employed by director Ken Kwapis. Besides catching the eye, the scenes make the cinematic point of our place in the natural world and what is at stake when we neglect it. The understated musical track, especially the songs by the group Urban Lore, dovetails nicely with hiking scenes.
Along with Reese Witherspoon’s recent and much more hyped “Wild,” this one reminds hikers past and present of the joys and challenges of a long, hard walk. Periodically, Katz teases Bryson that the author is undertaking the journey in order to write a book about the experience. Bryson denies it right up until the very end. I’m glad he changed his mind.