This is another film about two men spending some tense and intense time together, but A Walk in the Woods feels very different than The End of the Tour.
Robert Redford plays Bill Bryson, the aging travel writer who decided to try walking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. His wife (played by Emma Thompson) thinks that’s a pretty crazy idea, finds a series of trail horror stories on the internet and insists Bill take someone with him. But the only person willing to join Bryson is Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend he hasn’t seen in decades and who can barely stay on his feet when he gets off the plane.
Bryson knows it will be a challenge but he takes the chance and he and Katz set off on their hiking adventure through the forested mountains of Georgia. It’s a slow start for them (though a great start to the film), made worse by their encounter with Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a woman hiking by herself (for good reason) who tells them everything they are doing wrong and keeps them awake at night with her horrific singing. But the old men trek on, enduring a series of adventures (some very dangerous) while putting a lot of miles behind them.
Their encounters and discussions are rather lightweight, but there are a number of precious moments between Bryson and Katz, like when they are discussing the state of their lives and suddenly get their first view of the mountains before them or when they talk about life while looking up at the stars from a mountain ledge or when Katz talks about his drinking problem (and why he’s been dry for a decade).
Unfortunately, there are also some awful moments, like when they stop in a small town and Bryson briefly gets to know a motel owner (Mary Steenburgen) while Katz has a romantic encounter with a large woman named Beulah (Susan McPhail). The lowest point in the film is when Beulah’s husband comes looking for Katz. Although he has no idea in which room Katz is hiding, he manages to break down the correct door as Katz escapes out the window. It’s the kind of lazy stupid writing one might expect in the worst Hollywood comedies. The entire scene in the small town felt wrong and should have been edited out. It alone would prevent me from considering giving A Walk in the Woods more than ***. The way women are treated throughout the film deserves condemnation, though clearly the film is meant to be watched from the point of view of the two men, so allowances must be made.
On the positive side, A Walk in the Woods is a gorgeous film to watch and Redford (who has wanted to make this film for years) and Nolte are well-cast and do a great job (especially Nolte). It’s a lot of fun watching these aging actors work together. So I will give A Walk in the Woods ***. My mug is up, but I prefer a heavier brew inside.