walk_in_the_woods_posterWhen I was a pastor, speaking of death and eternity often fell on deaf ears firmly plugged with denial. But when I had occasion to speak at a funeral, sober and attentive eyes in the audience often stared back.

There’s nothing like the funeral of a friend – who died a natural death from the kind of maladies that often strike the elderly – to wake a person to their own mortality. Standing in line to console the widow, realizing there are more than a few of your friends missing from the line, is a sobering reality check.

Just such an experience struck the character Bill Bryson in the film loosely based on the true story and book by the same name, “A Walk in the Woods.”

But instead of bemoaning that mortality in a rocking chair binge watching “Wheel of Fortune,” Bryson decided to take a walk. And when that walk crossed a northern leg of the famed Appalachian Trail … Bryson got an idea.

Teaming up with a rough and gruff buddy from the old days named Stephen Katz, Bryson and Katz set out, despite their advanced years, to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, or the AT.

The resulting book from Bryson and Katz’s real-life adventures is a funny travel tale widely loved by many who read it (especially my wife). The fictionalized film is nothing short of laugh-out-loud, try-not-to-pee-your-pants (no matter your age) hilarious.

Robert Redford plays an introspective straight man in Bryson, while Emma Thompson is once again brilliant as his flabbergasted but ultimately supportive wife and Nick Nolte is a riot as Katz, Bryson’s long-lost buddy and the “Odd Couple” Oscar to Redford’s Felix.

It’s only fair to mention that much of Nolte’s humor is foul-mouthed and sexualized, a “dirty old man” shtick, but Nolte and Redford also bring a heartfelt chemistry convincing enough to see Bryson and Katz as both enemies and friends, the kind of opposites who can’t ever quite get along but who regard one another as brothers in arms.

The movie is whimsical and uncertain in its messages, not unlike the pair’s decision to hike the AT in the first place. For example, it soundly affirms marital fidelity, but also glamorizes “sowing wild oats” before marriage. It brings up heartfelt questions, but then doesn’t really try to answer them. There’s something of the notion that the journey itself is the message.

Katz, for example, tries to figure out in a few scenes why Bryson was so determined to take this trek in the first place. Was it some sort of delayed mid-life crisis? Has he felt “trapped” by his domesticated life, in need of some wilderness in his world?

“Are you happy?” Katz asks Bryson at one point.

“What kind of question is that?” Bryson responds.

“Pretty damn important question, I’d say,” Katz retorts.

But then, that’s the end of the scene. The questions, the thoughts, the meaning behind the meaning is as uncertain as the mists of the Smokey Mountains themselves.

Early in their journey, Bryson makes a comment that even he admits is “reaching for metaphors.” Hiking the Trail, he says, is like life. And … then they just have to hike to see if he’s right.

The one consistent theme, however, is the interplay between life and death, and the journey between the two. “A Walk in the Woods” is little more than a walk down that very path, and it never does quite reach its destination, but it’s funny as heck along the way, and it ends with a metaphor of its own, a postcard from Katz asking, “Wondering what’s next?”

Content advisory:

  • “A Walk in the Woods,” rated R, contains roughly 80-90 profanities and obscenities, many of which are strong.
  • The movie contains several lewd references and jokes, particularly as Katz admits most of his life has been spent either drinking or chasing (a crude term for) sex, or both. Memory lane is littered with sexual tales. There are also a few kisses between a married couple, some heavy flirting that may or may not have led to off-screen adultery, a man’s bare bottom, and a scene where a woman puts her head in her boyfriend’s lap, implying oral sex, but nothing further is seen.
  • Some perilous situations in hiking the trail are both discussed and depicted, and a jealous husband threatens Katz with bodily harm, but there is no violence or combat or gunplay on screen.
  • The movie has no overt religious or occult content, though there are a pair of lines that could certainly spur discussions on faith: “Just because you don’t accept something doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” and, “There’s just this hole in my life where drinking used to be.”

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