by Nick Anstett
Bill Bryson’s travel memoir “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,” originally published in 1998, impressed readers for years with its anecdotal sense of humor and entertaining insight into the American wilderness. On paper, it makes sense why Robert Redford would become enamored with the piece and persist for over 10 years after initial announcement to have it produced into a feature film. However, now that the final project, directed by Ken Kwapis, has finally arrived on the silver screen, one can’t help but wish that he didn’t bother to make the trip.
Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is an aging travel writer who finds himself bored with today’s world. His writings seem to fall on deaf ears, and he feels as if he cannot connect with the culture around him. On a routine walk after attending an acquaintance’s wake, Bryson stumbles upon the Appalachian Trail and decides that attempting to hike through the famous path is the key to solving his melancholy. With his family and close friends doubting his ability, Bryson is joined by a former acquaintance Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). Together the two try what people assume is the impossible.
Hiking stories, or travel narratives in general, hinge on two fundamental aspects that are essential for success. Contrary to what some may assume, the locations presented must play second fiddle to the travelers themselves. Without an understanding of what makes our human focal point tick, whether it be through a dramatic hook or character introspection, which last year’s “Wild” succeeded with, there is ultimately little difference between the movie and watching amateur montages of wilderness footage on YouTube for two hours. It’s here that “A Walk in the Woods” fundamentally fails. Even as its presentation of Appalachia flounders in and out of aesthetically pleasing aerial shots, Kwapis’s film proves to be a fundamentally hollow and disinterested affair.
As Redford portrays Bryson, there’s very little to sympathize with or even rouse interest in the character presented. While the real life man he is based off draws humor from self-deprecating and insightful real life experiences, Redford’s take on the character borderlines on the misanthropic.
We care little to see Bryson succeed in his voyage because his reasoning for doing is, so utterly inconsequential and spur of the moment that it plays out more like a study on aging stubbornness without much to say. Bryson meets almost every human being he encounters with a dismissive shrug and flat one-liners, talking down to other hikers and denizens of Appalachia left and right. “A Walk in the Woods” almost comes off as a mocking, condescending campfire story rather than a celebration of one of the nation’s most impressive physical feats and natural wonders.
The only thing remotely human that “A Walk in the Woods” seems interested in is the relationship between Bryson and his hiking partner Katz. However, Katz never truly graduates from comic relief to fully understood character. We are never quite sure if screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman want us to view him as anything more than another cog in the nonstop barrage of uninspired one-liners, mean spirited jabs, or flat slapstick. As a result, when Katz stops to ponder his struggles with alcoholism, the results feel haphazard and disinterested. It’s perhaps telling that they ring with the same hollow sentimentality as Redford’s frequent soliloquies about trees and rocks and why television is the devil.
“A Walk in the Woods” plays out like a slog, misguided in its presentation, and, as a result, comes across as being utterly lacking conviction. When it concludes its 104 minute run time, you want to wipe your brow alongside its protagonists.