Not a word is spoken in "Walking Out" before we feel we understand its two characters, their relationship and, on some level, the nature of the struggle that lies ahead of them.
A 14-year-old Texan boy named David (Josh Wiggins) has just landed at a small airport in frigid Montana, where he waits inside for Cal (Matt Bomer), the father he sees only once a year. When he looks up from his phone and sees his dad knocking impatiently on the window, David doesn't immediately react, signaling in a moment's hesitation just how reluctant he is to be there.
Later that day, the two keep some distance between each other as they amble through the wilderness looking for grouse to shoot, Cal filling the silences with chatter and David quietly wishing he were somewhere else — probably back home with his mom, who remains off-screen but sends text messages by the hour. Over the course of this strikingly beautiful movie, the directors Alex and Andrew J. Smith pointedly close the gap between father and son, spinning a drama of estrangement and tentative bonding into a swift and brutal tale of survival.
Cal, a seasoned hunter, has been tracking a moose so David can nab his "first kill," a rite of passage that he hopes will put some hair on the boy's chest and show him that there's more to life than video games and Mom's apron strings. As they venture into the wilderness, Cal rarely shuts up; he always has some tip or bit of wisdom to impart, at least when he's not criticizing David for not being fast, stealthy or attentive enough. But he isn't trying to humiliate the boy — only to love him the only way he knows how, and teach him something true and essential in what little time they have together.
David, for his part, isn't crazy about the prospect of killing big game, though he's willing to go along with it for his dad's sake. But after hours and hours of walking, they arrive at a remote clearing and are suddenly reminded — with a visceral intensity that takes your breath away — just how vulnerable they are to the elements, the wildlife and sheer bad luck. And so they begin their journey back out, this time much more slowly and agonizingly than before, knowing they will be fortunate to make it home alive.
We are firmly in Jack London territory here, spiritually if not geographically. Adding another picture to their small but fascinating body of work set in their native Montana ("The Slaughter Rule," "Winter in the Blood"), the Smith brothers, faithfully adapting a short story by David Quammen, have made a spare but deeply affecting male weepie, in which the intensity of feeling between father and son can find expression only under the most extreme circumstances.
Todd McMullen's widescreen compositions framing the majestic landscape, backed by the classical inflections of Ernst Reijseger's score, are gorgeous enough to shed tears over. But it's the sudden surge of intimacy that breaks you: the sense that the life-or-death stakes are not only inspiring acts of heroism and sacrifice, but also compelling Cal and David to finally see each other clearly for the first time.
The father-son angst, the unflagging peril, the staggering landscapes and the sight of a grizzly bear occasionally crawling into view may remind you of an Oscar-winning epic of recent vintage, but "Walking Out" runs an hour shorter than "The Revenant" and puts it to shame at every minute.
The Smiths may be working on a comparatively modest scale, but it's precisely that modesty that gives their work its bone-deep authority and humanity, along with a refusal to indulge in violence for its own sake. (Michael Taylor's editing is all the more impactful for its discretion.)
The actors are exceptionally well matched. Wiggins is sharp and engaging as a tongue-tied teenager suddenly forced to come into his own. And Bomer, known for his cleaner-shaven turns in "Magic Mike" and "The Normal Heart," steps confidently into the boots of a rugged, know-it-all mountain man whose idea of tough love can turn unexpectedly toward tenderness around a flickering campfire.
You might wish Cal's vividly colored flashbacks to a fateful hunting trip with his own father — a fine Bill Pullman — had been more gracefully woven into the narrative, but you can hardly fault their inclusion. In the context of this gripping and elemental movie, they offer a stirring reminder of the children we were, the adults we become and all the indelible heartache that gets us from this side to the next.
Rating: PG-13, for bloody injury images, some thematic elements and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood
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