It is a rare thing to find a film that manages to both subvert a genre and yet be richly poignant and honour it at the same time.
Walking Out, written and directed by twins Alex & Andrew J. Smith, manages this impressive feat, presenting us with a gritty survival story that doesn’t quite play out as you might expect, one that is emotionally-resonant in such quietly-powerful ways that you don’t realise how engaged your heart is until it breaks a little bit.
Or as it turns out, quite a lot.
Based on a short story by David Quammen, the film explores the indeterminate zone that exists between members of the same family when they long for closeness, for real communication and belonging, but can’t quite bridge the gap to get there.
In Walking Out, this chasm separates father and son Cal (Matt Bomer as an adult, Alex Neustaedter as a teenager) and David (Josh Wiggins), who see each once a year as Cal’s remote home in Montana’s Big Sky Country, and who struggles, despite their best intentions, to re-engage after so long apart.
A typical suburban teenager who lives with his mother in Texas, David does not hold any antipathy to his father – refreshingly he is not some angsty annoying teenager with a chip the size of a mountain on his shoulder; it becomes blatantly clear that David wants to be close to his dad if only he can find a way – he simply isn’t sure how to connect with a man whose world revolves around self-survival and hunting.
Cal too, despite his gruff demeanour and atrophied social skills – he doesn’t come into the small airport terminal to pick up David who’s been waiting a long while but merely taps on the door and walks off, waiting for his son to run and get in the car – is aching to be close to his son, something that emerges in practical ways such as his always-constant need to impart hunting and survival tips, and one night around a campfire with a verbal articulation of his passionate need for them to be close in a way that he hasn’t managed to date.
It’s a heart’s cry that is common to many parents and children who want to know each other intimately and deeply, but haven’t a clue how to get to a place whose very existence seems to shimmer in the distance like a mirage before disappearing.
Walking Out beautifully draws out this tension and longing but also how it can be conjured from the mists of the seeming impossible and given concrete form; not always perfectly, of course, but enough that neither party feels as separated from the other as they have done to date.
This achingly slow coming together takes places for Cal and David on a hunting trip into a high, snow-jammed mountains that surround the former’s home where the ostensible goal is to kill a moose and get enough food for the winter – Cal is not, you quickly come to understand, a supermarket and takeaway kind of guy – but where the unstated goal, well initially at least, is to broach the yawning chasm between father and son.
Moving insight is given into what motivates Cal beyond the usual need to be a good dad is provided by flashbacks to hunting trips he went on with his dad, Clyde (Bill Pullman), which are interspersed with great effectiveness and minimal narrative logjamming and help you understand why it matters to him that he and Cal are more than just blood relatives who awkwardly bond once a year.
These vignettes from Cal’s past are sprinkled throughout this quietly told but richly-layered story which moves from bonding hunting trip, and Cal and David do begin to move genuinely closer to each other in real and authentic ways, to survival tale when an encounter with a mother Grizzly Bear leads to Cal being shot and David needing to carry him out to get medical help.
In that respect, it probably sounds like the sort of story you’ve seen many times before but the heartfelt genius of Walking Out, which tells its story without manipulative fanfare, preferring the unadorned truth of letting it play out, is that never rests on what is expected, its nuanced storytelling unspooling with the same understated meditative quality as the snow-covered, silent landscape in which its set.
It’s this landscape, all soaring craggy mountain speaks, burbling streams and pines forest standing at watchful attention, captured in its all majesty by cinematographer Todd McMullen, that frames this tale in ways that make it, all cliche aside, as integral a character as any other.
It dominates proceedings, giving both ecstatic joy at the start, and sorrowful frustration and agony at the end, and underscores, in a very real physical sense that never feels obvious or overplayed, how great the gap is between Cal and David, and then how it begins to close bit by bit, shared moment by memorised survival tip.
In a neat piece of inverse storytelling, that as Cal and David draw together, a dynamic which gathers pace when son is trying to rescue father but is well underway before then in ways that will make you smile with quiet delight at the joy it brings to both people, the landscape becomes ever more challenging, ever more defeating and obstructing even as it remains starkly and immeasurably beautiful.
While the setting is immersively breathtaking, the real beauty of Walking Out is that never feels the need, not once, to go for obvious messaging, statements of feeling or intent or cliched denouement.
Each step of the way, the story unfolds deliberately, authentically, two very real people who want to be close but aren’t, finding a way, in good times and then bad, to bridge that gap enough that they no longer feel like strangers to each other, nor the holders of unfulfilled relational dreams.
It’s impossible to discuss the ending without giving away far too much, so suffice to say, the final act is both what you might be thinking and wholly not, an adherence to survival stories and a marked departure, one that might slow a little but which is never less than utterly moving in ways you can’t even articulate until you’ve had time to ruminate on how everything plays out.
Suffice to say, Walking Out is one of this year’s finest films, a profoundly enriching and deeply-moving examination of the great voids that exist between those who love each other the most, and how they can be bridged in ways and in circumstances that defy your every expectation, taking you places, both real and metaphorical, that you never thought you’d actually go and which change you for life.