Directors: Alex Smith and Andrew J. Smith
Cast: Matt Bomer, Josh Wiggins, Bill Pullman, Alex Neustaedter, Lily Gladstone, Ken White
MPAA Rating: (for bloody injury images, some thematic elements and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 10/6/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 5, 2017
At some point, every son must carry his father—in old age, on account of illness, or, in a more figurative sense, as a memory. Walking Out, a delicate story of fathers and sons that happens to be set in the harsh and frozen woods of Montana, takes that idea quite literally. At a certain point, a son has to deadlift his father and walk with the man on his back for miles, in order to keep both of them alive. How it comes to that is almost irrelevant—a series of frightening moments, an instance of unthinking curiosity, a blameless accident with a rifle. The point is how the film uses that action as an extreme circumstance for a survivalist drama, but it's also how the film uses that image as a metaphorical culmination of the relationship that writers/directors Alex and Andrew J. Smith have been studying until that point.
The screenplay (adapted from a short story by David Quammen) is primarily focused on the relationship between Cal (Matt Bomer), who lives on a ranch over vast acreage in Big Sky Country, and his 14-year-old son David (Josh Wiggins), who lives with his mother in Texas. The visit is a momentous occasion for Cal, who wants his son to hunt his first moose—just as Cal did when he was the same age. That hunt was, perhaps, the last quality time he spent with his own father Clyde (Bill Pullman), who died some years ago—long enough that David's only memory of his grandfather is of his funeral.
Cal wishes his son could have known his grandfather, especially since he believes he stopped knowing his old man at some point after his mother's death at a young age. That's when the old man became an old man, as far as Cal is concerned. Clyde used to hunt a lot. After that, though, he lost the desire for it. He spent his later years fishing and shooting at grouse near the ranch. Cal thinks his father would intentionally miss the birds.
The stories of the two generations of father-son dynamics are intercut sporadically, as Cal and David set off into the wild, looking for a bull moose that Cal had been tracking for weeks before his son's arrival. In their downtime, Cal tells David the story of his first moose hunt, but it's not really about the hunt or the moose. It's about the growing realization that Cal couldn't live up to the picture he had created of his father in his mind, and as that story climaxes, it's also about the realization that, if Clyde was ever even close to that picture, he definitely wasn't the man the son believed he was. Whether the truth of the old man's character was better or worse than the imagined picture doesn't matter. The disappointment stung to the core.
There are a lot of quiet moments here—walking through the trees and over the mountains of the terrain, crouched down to look for signs of the moose, sitting by a campfire at night. Cal is passing on practical advice to David about hunting and surviving in the wild, but there's an unspoken quality to all of that, too. On one of those nights, sitting in the glow of the fire, Cal pretty much says it: It's a father's wish that his son will know him.
It's more than just a wish, though. It burns so bright and hurts so much that it's enough to make a man cry. David knows his father enough to know to interrupt the moment. Maybe it's because he doesn't want to see his father cry, lest his own imagined picture of the man be tainted, or maybe it's because he knows Cal wouldn't want his son to see him cry. It's probably both.
After all, David is only on this hunting trip for his father, since he doesn't really want to kill a moose. Cal gives the boy a way out fairly early on, but David still agrees to continue. He doesn't want to disappoint his father, because that's how sons think—until they realize that fathers are equally capable of disappointing their sons.
That's really the heart of this relationship—that give-and-take between the man and the boy, as both try to be themselves and communicate their characters, while each of them also tries to ensure that neither disappoints the other. It's an impossible bit of maneuvering, really, and the key to the film's success is that the Smiths don't push the dynamic as a way of creating drama or tension. They let these characters exist as they are, in this situation, and with the weight of the unspoken influence their every decision. The central performances are vital, too, with Wiggins as the hesitant but pressured son and Bomer—in a great performance—suggesting the urgency of soldering this bond, Cal's regret of the past, and a mixture of pride and fear that David has become his own man without him.
Does the story's series of misfortunes seem a little too much? Yes, there's something contrived about how it all ends up where it does, but as a sequence of terror, it works, because we have a real investment in these characters. Does the film lose a bit of momentum and impact, as one of the two characters is essentially immobilized and the story becomes a race against the clock? Yes, it's far more involving to watch these characters without the addition of a set plot. Do any of these things really matter that much, when Walking Out does such an apt job of communicating the spoken and unspoken hopes and fears between a father and son? It does not.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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