Sundance 2017: Walking Out, by David Bax
If it weren’t for the fact that it’s a harrowing tale of survival in the dangerous, freezing mountains, Alex and Andrew Smith’s Walking Out would serve as a hell of an advertisement for the Montana tourism board (to certain types, it still might read that way). Full of snowy, widescreen vistas courtesy of cinematographer Todd McMullen and lovely, lingering shots of wildlife, it’s both more beautiful and more emotional than a similar film like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant.
Fourteen-year-old David (Josh Wiggins), who lives with his mother in Texas, is visiting his father, Cal (Matt Bomer), for their yearly hunting trip. At first, the expedition is perfunctory for David, who is clearly counting the minutes until he can return. Eventually, though, he gets on his father’s wavelength and begins to understand and appreciate the joys of the hunt until a sudden, bloody incident turns things into a Jack London-style matter of life and death for David and Cal as well as for the wildlife.
The Smiths are clear about their ideals, having Cal lay out his rules–hunt only what you will eat; leave behind nothing you’ve killed–and then further fleshing out, via flashbacks involving Cal’s father (Bill Pullman), the difference between hunting and killing. That is only the surface of the film’s values, though. Walking Out goes on to encapsulate issues from generational differences in masculinity to more primal concerns like surviving by depending on others against the harshness of nature. When David says to Cal, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” it’s a breakthrough, not a defeat.
Bomer is terrific as a character older than he is, complete with salt and pepper hair and beard, playing against type as a taciturn, hardnosed patriarch. Still, there’s a deep current of emotion running beneath that facade, which Bomer slowly and masterfully eases to the surface. Wiggins and Pullman are both solid as well and we are also treated to a small turn by Certain Women‘s Lily Gladstone, who previously appeared in the Smiths’ last film, the underseen Winter in the Blood.
With the snow and the blood and the bears, it’s impossible not to liken Walking Out to a modern-day The Revenant. But where Inarritu was stubbornly concerned with insisting on his protagonist’s strength through a series of showy vignettes, the Smiths look deeper, questioning what strength and resilience really mean. They are attempting to survive the great outdoors, yes, but they are also dependent on it for sustenance. In the Smiths’ Montana, nature and nurture are not opposed.