Walking Out, directed and adapted by Alex and Andrew J. Smith and based on a short story by David Quammen, is set in the serenely stunning wilderness of Montana. The film tells the story of a father and son trying to reconnect over a hunting trip, but after an encounter with a bear it becomes a gruelling race for survival. Plot-wise, there are some superficial similarities to sweeping epic The Revenant, but the film is distinguished by its more restrained, grounded approach to its subject matter. Ultimately, however, this restraint renders the film narratively uneven. Its individual elements are well-executed, especially the acting and cinematography, but together they do not generate the sustained engagement or visceral impact the film was perhaps aiming for.
Fourteen-year-old David (Josh Wiggins) has just landed in snowy, isolated Montana to visit his father Cal (Matt Bomer). He is now living with his mother in Texas, but once a year he visits his dad – and this remains the only opportunity for them to bond. Upholding a family tradition, Cal is planning to take David on a hunting trip where he can shoot his first moose, and interspersed throughout their trip are Cal’s memories of hunting with his own father, Clyde (Bill Pullman). The father-son pair delve deep into the snowy Montana wilderness tracking a moose, but in the sudden haste to avoid crossing paths with a bear Cal is shot and seriously injured. It is up to David to carry his father back to find help before it is too late.
The film achieves an atmosphere of intimacy through its two fine lead performances. The father-son relationship is distant, even strained, but both performances adeptly navigate this tension. Bomer strikes a balance between overbearing and nurturing. He knows what values he wants to impart to David – an abiding respect for nature, and associated ideals about dignity, honour and masculinity – but this is tinged by the understanding that he only has a limited, fragile window during which to cultivate this influence. Wiggins also finds convincing balance in his performance, between stubbornness and openness, sensitivity and strength. It is unsurprising that he is more interested in his mobile phone, and that he is discomforted by the prospect of hunting, and killing, a moose. However, by the end of the film, David is forced to persevere and mature, and a quiet, understated bond develops between the pair. The film is a meditation on father-son relations, on tradition and change, and the inexorable passage of time.
Todd McMullen’s cinematography is also commendable. It is sweeping but also restrained, as if consciously trying to avoid calling too much attention to itself. This is not an easy task, given the grandiose, disarming beauty of the snowy, mountainous landscapes. There is an arresting stillness to the way images are framed – austere yet alluring, indifferent yet awe-inspiring – and moving moments of tranquillity in which characters observe nature with humility. This is complemented by the film’s sound design which is understated when it could easily have become overbearing and emotionally manipulative. Instead, it is wistful – a subtle piano, a melancholic violin – with ample silences in between.
However, these strong elements are not enough to overcome the film’s overall faltering pace, which does not sustain our attention throughout. It leans too heavily on restraint; the first half is largely uneventful, and even the second half is a little too understated despite the narrative urgency. And while there are moving, gently enthralling moments of silence, connection and awe, these moments are unfortunately undermined by a plot which is too sparse to fully captivate us.
Walking Out is in cinemas from 5th April through Icon Film Distribution.