2017 Sundance Film Festival London: Walking Out Review
What begins as a rites-of-passage, evolves into a fight against the elements and a struggle to stay alive in the harshest of conditions. A third film by brothers Alex and Andrew Smith - who also penned the script - takes us to the snow covered mountains of Montana during early winter, where a father and son's fragile relationship is tested to its extreme. David Quammen’s short story of the same name serves as the basis for an adaptation that is stripped down to the bare bones.
Walking Out burns with simmering intensity, developing a richly layered narrative built on the performances of a young Josh Wiggins and the experience of Matt Bomer. It remains a two-hander from start to finish, casting us out into the freezing bitterness of their relationship and the surrounding environment. Wiggins plays David, a 14-year-old arriving from Texas to head out on his annual hunting trip with his estranged father Cal (Bomer). He’s a modern child tied into technology, with little or no interest in hunting and learning the land – a lifestyle that Cal was born and bred into.
The awkwardness of their greeting speaks to the literal and emotional distance that has developed between father and son over time. Cal lives and breathes a rustic way of life and is determined that David will experience the same lessons and experiences his father (played in retrospect by Bill Pullman) passed onto him in his mid-teens. He is short on pleasantries, clearly showing his disappointment that David continually misses in his attempts to shoot down his first bird in flight. Hunting a moose higher up in the mountains is the real prize this year and after David has slowly warmed to task, a close encounter with a Bear leaves Cal badly injured, stranded several miles from their cabin, having to rely on his son to navigate them back to safety.
A fully fit Cal would have no problem finding a route back through the heavy snow, using natural landmarks as his guide. Now reliant on David to save him, he has to put aside his pride and dominance to place faith in a son who doesn’t meet his ideals of manhood. Throughout the course of their time spent together, Cal recalls his childhood memories, establishing his views on hunting and killing, and how one is distinctly different from the other. While left unsaid, of course, how these two generations approach their masculinity are almost polar opposites, yet both have to find a point of reconciliation in the direst of circumstances.
Cinematographer Todd McMullen frames this against the stunning Montana landscape, pulling out to a number of wide shots that encapsulates the literal and figurative mountains that lay ahead for father and son. The action is brief but executed with enough thrilling conviction to effectively raise the tension levels, helped by two fine performances from Bomer and relative newcomer Wiggins. Much of the success of the film relies on how convincingly the two actors are able to convey a familial bond broken by the weight of time and past expectations. There is much to like about this tale of survival that digs underneath the surface with understated patience.