Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog
There’s a truly wonderful moment in Alex and Andrew Smith’s survival drama, Walking Out, that not only encapsulates the themes and dramatic tension of the film itself, but all of the major modern wilderness films that came before it. Sitting against a tree, hunter Cal (Matt Bomer), sees a young deer. It approaches him, stares deep into his eyes, gets so close that it could almost lick his face, and then wanders off.
It’s one of the most beautiful images in a film that’s chock full of them. Cinematographer Todd McMullen never misses an opportunity to show off the stunning scenery of rural Montana, juxtaposing the vast open land with the intimate nature of story, both in the familial aspect and in the creeping danger of each passing moment. Throughout the proceedings, the camera work evokes images reminiscent of The Grey, The Revenant, and Into the Wild.
After more than a year’s estrangement, Cal welcomes his teenage son David (Josh Wiggins) to his remote home for a long-awaited father-son hunting trip. Even though the pair have spent a long time apart, Cal is stoically thrilled at this rite of passage for David, dead set on getting the lad his “first kill,” something Cal accomplished at the same age on a trip with his late father, Clyde, played in flashbacks by Bill Pullman. While the pair have hunted quail before (and do so again to help David shake off the rust), the big game is a moose that Cal’s been tracking for several days.
Now, at first a lot of this generational drama seems forced, and the pacing is off by a considerable margin. Nearly half the film is devoted to Cal’s frustrations at David not being “man” enough for his tastes, as being a typical teenager, David’s more interested in his phone than a gun. There are points where Cal even goes so far as to seem obsessed with the idea of murder, like he truly can’t be satisfied until David takes an animal’s life. It’s not until much later in the film that we learn why Cal finds this so important, and thanks to the slow character development in the first act, his need to validate his life and parenting choices feels largely misplaced.
It’s only when we truly get into the wilderness that the pieces start to fit together. Flashbacks and exposition reveal the schism between Cal and Clyde, and put an emphasis on respect for nature and the true gravity of the hunt, especially when there are animals out there that can hunt you right back. For example, after spending the first act painting Cal as a trigger-happy poster child for toxic masculinity, we learn that he only hunts for food, eating everything he kills, and that he’s more genuinely angry at what he calls “tourist hunters” who shoot indiscriminately than he is about his son being too “soft.”
The film finally shifts into survival mode after an encounter with a bear. While it’s nowhere near as visceral as what Leonardo DiCaprio experienced in The Revenant, it does leave both David and Cal injured, the latter critically so. It falls to David to use everything his father taught him to lead them out, with David literally carrying his father on his back the entire way.
This whole sequence illustrates one of the best aspects of the film, and sadly one where it doesn’t quite stick the landing. As soon as Cal identifies a family of bears near the vicinity, the tension quickly mounts, with McMullen framing the two in this delicate balance, simultaneously acting as predator and prey. Every movement delivers a fantastic bit of drama as the viewer waits with bated breath for the other shoe to drop.
The unfortunate part is that this catalyst also forces a shift in the narrative perspective. While Wiggins and Bomer both have tremendous chemistry together, the first half of this movie is decidedly about Cal. After the bear attack, it suddenly becomes David’s movie, with Cal breaking in for exposition dumps and pathos. It’s incumbent upon David to ensure the pair’s survival, even though he is woefully ill-equipped to deal with the situation, and that muddied focus raises questions I don’t think the filmmakers intended. The largest of these is what sort of trauma David must endure through no real fault of his own should he fail? There’s a poetic justice in Cal’s brush with death, because his hubris brings about much of the peril, and it mirrors his falling out with Clyde fantastically. But David is little more than a bystander, emotionally and intellectually unprepared to be forced into this extraordinary circumstance that has consequences far beyond whether or not he gets that elusive first kill. That jarring switch in focus shortchanges David’s overall characterization just a bit.
Thankfully, the creative aspects do a lot of heavy lifting to mitigate these concerns. The aforementioned shot with the deer honestly made me forgive all the pacing issues from the first act. It really is that breathtaking of a sequence. Also, there’s a lovely bit of visual art in the presentation of Cal’s flashbacks with his father. In his idealized world, the memories play like silent 8mm home videos, similar to the opening sequence of The Wonder Years. However, as he’s forced to reconcile with his past, the truth behind Cal’s glory days is given a stark, pallid color scheme, with straightforward, objective framing, figuratively laying bare the sins of this particular father. Like David himself as he carries Cal down the mountain, the characterization and pacing sometimes stumbles in the depths of the frozen land, but in the end, a gripping visual tale goes a long way into turning a gun nut into a tragic hero, and like Cal’s personal arc, finds ways to restore balance and correct its own mistakes.