What happens when you approach the tail end of your life, and suddenly aren't quite sure you're completely fulfilled or ready to hang it up? Call it a late-life crisis, if you will. If you're aging travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), you decide the best way to find yourself and reconnect with your center is to hike the Appalachian Trail.
At the insistence of his level-headed wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson), Bryson agrees to buddy up for the trip - the only problem is that none of his responsible friends have any desire to join him. The only person who agrees to along with Bryson on his foolhardy adventure is the former alcoholic, womanizer, and general trainwreck, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), with whom Bryson had a falling out decades ago after a disastrous trip through Europe.
Still, the pair are determined to do it, though Katz' motivation for undertaking the journey is unclear, as he arrives out of shape, with multiple medical conditions, and seemingly in no mindset to endure a grueling, 2,000+ mile hike.
Despite the rocky start, it becomes clear that the mismatched duo find something in their polar opposition that each needs at the time. Katz, as it is revealed, has left behind a few outstanding warrants for his arrest, is struggling with being newly sober, and is possibly regretting the fact he's never truly finished anything he's started. Bryson's troubles, on the other hand, are those of someone who has led a charmed life for a very long time and has started to take his good fortune for granted.
And Redford and Nolte have very good chemistry together, with each showing flashes of the great comedic timing that we often forget they have. Nolte is particularly good in his delivery, his growling, half-drunk delivery belying his spot-on handling with some jokes, that in anyone else's hands, might come across as crass or just blatantly offensive. Redford is equally as strong as the buttoned-up straight man to Nolte. There are points when you can see the young man Redford once was, and why he has had so much charisma and sway throughout his career. Bryson, conflicted as he is, is a character you instinctively trust to always know what to do.
The problem is that the emotional excavations of each man, much like the lighthearted tone of the movie, never quite go as deep as you'd like. Admittedly, their problems are perhaps something I'd have been able to relate to more instinctively were I a man in my 70s instead of a relatively young woman in my 30s, but while Bryson and Katz spend a lot of time reminiscing and bickering humorously, neither ever really comes right out with addressing the conflict going on inside of him. The closest that they come to a revelatory scene is when Katz admits to Bryson how hard it has been to give up drinking.
But perhaps it's fitting that each man sifts through his problems quietly and internally with nature as a guide. Because it is nature that is truly the third member of their party, with John Bailey's cinematography of sweeping vistas and the vastness of his breathtaking, panoramic shots acting as a foil to the very self-contained, internal landscapes of Bryson and Katz. It is human nature to need a return to nature, particularly when wrestling with personal problems that are not always clearly defined. Nature is sometimes the sounding board we need, all ears, no voice, no judgment, no personal experiences or prejudices coloring its response.
Director Ken Kwapis makes a point to keep the tone of the film lighthearted, and it's a smart decision. Like an afternoon walk in the woods or a day at the beach, the lasting impression of A Walk In The Woods is an impermanent one, but somehow exactly as refreshing and recharging as you need.