Bill Bryson is a wordsmith who made his name as a purveyor of accessible travel books characterised by his wit, knowledge and approachable everyman-ism. Sadly though, precisely that which made him such a globally adored author is missing from this feature length screen adaptation of his 1998 travelogue A Walk In The Woods, in which Bryson and long-term pal Stephen Katz set out to walk the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail in the United States.
Bryson (Redford) is facing old age with a hearty serving of self-reflection and side portion of existential angst, and thus decides, much against his wife Catherine’s (Thompson) wiser wishes, to set out to walk the Appalachian Trail, yes, the hiking trail thousands of miles long that snakes along the east of the United States from Georgia to Maine. Bryson has been hiking before, and undertaken epic journeys, but neither for quite some time – and anyway, the trail sends annually a plethora of much younger and fitter trekkers back home with their tails between their legs, beaten into submission by the task at hand. Catherine gives her blessing but with a caveat – he doesn’t venture forth alone, and so insteps childhood friend Katz (Nolte), the two trudging out into the wilderness to face exhaustion, each other and no small amount of soul searching amidst the scenic landscapes and torrential weather.
Bryson is portrayed as much older on screen that he was when he actually undertook the trek (septuagenarian instead of fortysomething), but with the film’s focus on facing up to old age, one’s physical limitations and the passing of time, this elder outlook does no harm at all.
However, Michel Arndt and Bill Holderman’s script gives Redford little of Bryson’s famous wry humour, and the Hollywood superstar seems only mildly interested in what has been one of his own passion projects (he produces, and previously had designs on starring alongside his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid co-star Paul Newman). Where he singlehandedly held the attention in JC Chandor’s sailing survival tale All Is Lost, here he seems only partially engaged, and his Bryson as a result more worn down rather than reinvigorated.
Nolte – with a furious growling voice that would surely terrify even the grizzliest of American bears – injects a much needed dose of grit and grizzle as the overweight, recovering alcoholic Katz who is travelling his own spiritual journey, and Thompson does well with a small turn as the ever-worrying wife left at home wondering what fate is to befall her adventurous partner.
Obstacles are met, fretted upon and frequently navigated, even occasionally overcome, as the duo endures one another as much as the great American wild. Nolte and Redford’s charisma entertains and there are chucklesome moments to be found as they encounter wildlife, professional trekker types (Kristen Schaal in particular) and hardship. Yet there is little dramatic weight to be found and the insights only skin-deep. It is a walk with friends, but just not a life changing one.