Growing up in Pennsylvania near the Appalachian Trail (the “AT” to the cool kids) and having backpacked long expanses of it, I was intrigued when I stumbled across Bill Bryson’s nonfiction memoir A Walk in the Woods. I loved his “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and others I’d read so I downloaded this audiobook for my daily commute. Everything about the sexagenarian writer Bill Bryson deciding to walk to the AT from Georgia to Maine was comical in the book, including the unhealthy buffoon quasi-friend, Katz, who decides to accompany him. When the film version’s cast was announced and included Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz with support from Emma Thompson (Bryson’s wife), Mary Steenburgen (a hotel owner), and Kristen Schaal (an annoying hiker), I was hooked. Having thoroughly enjoyed the book, I was eager for the film. I’d seen very little hype online regarding the film, but screened the film keeping in mind that some audience will see the film because they enjoy Bryson’s writings while others will be there merely for the film.
Robert Redford not only played Bryson in the film but he also produced this Ken Kwapis film with a screenplay written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman. The screenplay is relatively true to the book in that Bryson’s not written anything fresh in several years and decides he is going to walk the AT. He calls everyone he knows until Stephen Katz, a friend of a friend with whom he used to adventure, asks Bryson if he can join the journey. Off these two older, out of shape men go to find what’s “out there”. I love the title of “A Walk in the Woods” as it’s such an understatement. Hundreds of people attempt to walk to the entire length of the AT yearly and hundreds fail, but Bryson and Katz are gung-ho for the journey of these 100 minutes.
Bryson who spent sometime living in the UK returns stateside with a British wife played perfectly by Emma Thompson. Her mothering of him is a balance between love and fear and respect for the man she married. The scenes between Thompson and Redford are spot on and the decades of filmic talent between these two show well in this narrative, but Nolte is the real winner here.
Nick Nolte has been in the business for over four decades. In his career he has struggled with substance abuse and has become a caricature of the man he once was. This was exactly how Bryson wrote the character of Stephen Katz; when Nolte was first cast I was curious to see how this would play out, but when he entered the film it was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Nolte and Katz are one in the same, and Nolte has used his talents to create a farcical version of his media persona to pour life into Katz. From the quick spouts of profanity and his love for women “who have four limbs and are still breathing” to his soft and quiet utter loyalty to Bryson and touching moments of male friendship, Nolte is perfectly cast for this film.
The primary cast is rounded out by Steenburgen, who owns a motel and restaurant with whom Bryson has a brief moment, and Schaal who is cleverly creepy in “30 Rock” as Hazel Wassername. The Schaal arc in the film’s first act sets a tone of balance between searching for one’s self and making a really fun film. While a majority of the cast is older, the music is quite fresh. Lord Huron composed more than half of the film’s soundtrack and the cohesion in sound was perfect for the film. In some films the soundtrack is either overpowering or completely invisible but here it simply enhances not only the action of the narrative but also the stunning cinematography as these two men hike the AT.
One caveat with A Walk in the Woods is that it isn’t the book. If you’ve enjoyed the book and want to see it on the silver screen, you won’t. You will see a well made interpretation of the book that tells a relatively compelling story albeit it’s a little thin in places compare to the richness of the book. Having said that, by including a solidly talented cast with a fresh, well composed soundtrack makes this that timeless sort of film that can be enjoyed cross-demographically.
A Walk in the Woods:[usr 4]
About A Walk in the Woods
Synopsis: Author Bill Bryson has not written anything new in 4 years. When his mortality encroaches upon his life, he decides he is going to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine with an old friend played by Nick Nolte.
Directors: Ken Kwapis
Writers: Rick Kerb & Bill Holderman
Story: Bill Bryson
Stars: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, and Mary Steenburgen
Rated: R for language & some sexuality
Runtime: 100 minutes