Travel writer Bill Bryson has it all: a distinguished career, a loving family, talk show appearances, and a house full of memories. He even has a library named after him somewhere out there in the world he spent a lifetime exploring. But his heart bears a stirring, a longing for a certain something he lost long before he settled down for a life of domesticity. So he decides to set out for one last adventure: he will hike the Appalachian Trail, the fabled 2,200 mile hiking trail stretching from the tip of Georgia to the tip of Maine. Never mind that only around 29% of hikers, most of whom are in their physical prime, manage to complete it. Bill Bryson will conquer it.
Of course, as anyone who has read Bryson’s 1998 travelogue A Walk in the Woods will tell you, he didn’t make it. Bryson barely reached the halfway point before he and his hiking companion Stephen Katz called it quits. And yet the book has entered the cultural consciousness as perhaps the definitive account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. So perhaps in this increasingly environmentally conscious age a movie adaptation was inevitable. Finally arriving this year, Ken Kwapis’ A Walk in the Woods recreates the legendary failed hike with none other than Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz.
From the start A Walk in the Woods propels itself with tired cinematic clichés: Redford and Nolte are two Old Estranged Friends who make an Unlikely Duo, the latter sensible and decently physically fit for his age, the former foolish and perpetually on the verge of a massive coronary. Along the way shenanigans are had, personal revelations brought to light, and the urge to call it quits flirted with with various levels of sincerity. Perhaps fearing that younger audiences would be frightened away by the prospect of watching a movie featuring two elderly actors that their parents won’t shut up about, the producers stocked the cast with plenty of cameos: Emma Thompson (or as this generation knows her, Sybill Trelawney from Harry Potter) shows up as Redford’s wife; Kristen Schaal appears as a fellow hiker to annoy Redford and Nolte with her aggravating quirkiness and midnight renditions of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky; and Nick Offerman appears as Diet, Caffeine-Free Ron Swanson for a scene where Redford shops for supplies.
Little distinguishes A Walk in the Woods in terms of originality until the third act with its string of emotional denouements. Only here are Redford and Nolte truly allowed to shed their Character Types and sink their teeth into meaty material. A scene where Nolte confesses his alcoholism and explains why, despite being sober for years, he carries a bottle of whisky everywhere he goes struck me as perhaps the most sublime monologue of his entire career. Even more impressively, it made me forgive an earlier scene where he gratuitously flashed his butt-crack while climbing into his tent on one of their first nights on the trail. Scenes where characters reflect on mankind’s insignificance on a grand cosmic scale while star-gazing usually come off as trite, but here it hits home with an earnest power.
A strange thing happened when A Walk in the Woods ended: I found myself attached to Redford and Nolte’s characters. Make no mistake, I have encountered these characters countless times in countless movies. But that just shows how a great third act can salvage a mediocre film. A Walk in the Woods doesn’t try to be a grand masterpiece or make triumphant statements about humanity and nature. It’s a casual, easy-going film that only gradually reveals a deeper profundity. But I’m more than thankful that I could come along for the journey.