While the film won’t change the world, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte breathe plenty of life into their roles, turning in anything but wooden performances

SPANNING more than 3,500km, the Appalachian Trail runs along the eastern length of the United States, cutting through a dozen national forests from Georgia up to Maine, and is one of the longest waymarked walks in the world.
With severe weather, bears, venomous snakes, and minimal infrastructure along the way – it is the kind of walk that madmen and fools tend to start – perfect cinematic fodder for A Walk in The Woods.
Bryson (Robert Redford) is an accomplished writer, who realises that most of his social life now revolves around attending funerals.
Reflecting on a life of travel and adventure, and uncomfortable with facing into old-age, he becomes captivated with the idea of walking the Appalachian Trail as his last great hurrah, much to the dismay of his wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson).
Catherine’s infatuation with the multitude of risks facing Bryson on the trail lead to her insisting that he can only go on his adventure if he has company, and the only one of Bryson’s old crew willing to take the journey with him is his long-estranged college friend, Katz (Nick Nolte).
The film is based on Bill Bryson’s best-selling memoir of the same name, and while some elements of the story have significantly changed in its transition to film (the real life Bryson and Katz were in their 40s when they walked the trail), the odd-couple pairing has remained.
Bryson is scholarly, stoical, and a little stiff in himself. He has a happy relationship with his wife, his kids have grown up successfully, and his grandchildren love him. His books sell well, and the walls of his study are decorated with awards and honorary positions.
Katz, in contrast, maintained the wild-man lifestyle; he never settled down, he has a history of struggling with booze, and he seems happiest when he is laying down playing harmonica to himself.
Accepting the age shift from the book, this is some spot-on casting. Redford’s great at capturing that prim and proper veneer, but with a peek of something else just beneath the surface.
You can tell the tale is driven by a sense of jealousy and rage, rallying against the urge to go quietly into the good night.
Nolte channels his inner Bukowski; a whiskey-shone nose and a gravelly, broken voice bring decades of suffering to life in Katz, who hobbles painfully up and down the trail.
However, despite some great performances from the two leads, A Walk in the Woods does feel a little flat, possibly because it has the potential to go a lot deeper than it ever does. There is no doubt that Bryson and Katz’s misadventures are entertaining, but there is a larger, existential layer to the journey that seems frequently alluded to but never explored.
Perhaps director Ken Kwapis’s long history in TV comedy keeps the focus on the lighter, superficial elements of the story, and in fairness they are what he can make work. Late night encounters with bears, altercations with local rednecks, and ditching awkward travelling companions (there’s a fun cameo from Flight of the Conchord’s Kristen Schaal) are all handled expertly.
Elements such as Bryson’s sense of righteousness, or his relationship with his wife, or Katz’s problems with alcohol are explored much more clumsily and frivolously.
While the rigid Bryson and the unruly Katz eventually find a common understanding, the film’s attempt to marry its comedic and dramatic parts doesn’t end as well.
It still maintains that Sunday afternoon kind of vibe where you can watch two ageing greats have fun together, but you can’t shake the feeling that somewhere along the trail we took a wrong turn.
Verdict: 5/10