Given its snowbound setting, a bloody bear attack, and the father-son relationship at its center, Alex and Andrew J. Smith’s wilderness survival tale Walking Out inevitably recalls The Revenant. But where Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is a virtual endurance test in its ostentatious, aggressively subjective approach to conveying the ravaging brutality of nature, Walking Out is modest in scope, its concerns limited to man’s attempts to live both morally and harmoniously with nature. There’s a striking sense of specificity to the way the film communicates the intricacies of a way of life that endures only in the most remote corners of the vast American landscape.
Upon arriving in rural Montana for his annual visit, David (Josh Wiggins) spends more time playing on his cellphone than engaging with his estranged father, Cal (Matt Bomer). But as soon as they plunge into the wilderness on a hunting trip, and seemingly step into another realm, father and son are inseparable. Throughout, Walking Out patiently lingers on the sights and sounds of nature; babbling brooks, crackling fires, wild deer, and snow-capped mountain peaks evince a serenity that echoes Cal’s introspective temperament. And it’s within this setting that this stoic man finally discovers ways to connect with his son, not with apologies but through actions.
David initially resists learning how to hunt and bristles at Cal’s advice, but he grows to respect the simple code of honor by which his father lives. When Cal catches sight of a dying moose, he recalls his own tumultuous relationship with his father (Bill Pullman), and their last hunting trip, during which he learned the significance of hunting for food rather than sport. Cal’s flashbacks are initially intrusive, disrupting the narrative right when the connection between him and David begins to strengthen, as well as too on the nose for how the ups and downs of two father-son relationships are paralleled. But once Cal and David are thrust into survival mode following a bear attack that leads to Cal getting accidentally shot in the thigh, the flashbacks put into sharper focus his desire to pass on his deeply held principles.
As David is forced to step into his father’s shoes and lead them to safety, the film is fiercely injected with urgency, with the Smith brothers often relying on nothing more than their actors’ expressive visages to convey the power of how Cal and David cement the bond between them. Just as the look of pride on Cal’s face is an undeniable expression of his otherwise unexpressed love for his son, we need only look at David hoisting his wounded father up onto his back and follow the direction of a river’s flow to understand that the young man has internalized at least some of the lessons his father has taught him.
Bomer and Wiggins’s committed performances and the screenplay’s granular depiction of its skilled outdoorsman struggling against the elements that he’s typically able to handle bring an emotional richness to an otherwise simple, barebones story. The Smiths’ eye for the unique ebbs and flows of the film’s environment, for how beauty here can mask great danger, is keen. Their unpretentiously low-key methods achieve an old-fashioned poignancy without resorting to the romanticizing or vilifying of a seemingly idyllic setting.