In Walking Out, a father and his teenage son sit around the campfire on the first night of their weekend hunting expedition, deep in the Montana wilderness. "Someday you'll have a son," the father says. "And you'll want so badly for him to know who you are that you could cry." The son nods his head and pretends to understand, but of course he doesn't. We can't know anything about what it means to look back meaningfully on the past until we've arrived at our life's precipice. For this particular teen, that defining moment is waiting for him over the next mountain, just a few hours from now, in the jaws of a hungry animal.
Montana-born filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith write and direct the film, adapted from a short story by David Quammen. In this, their third feature (after Winter in the Blood and The Slaughter Rule) the Smith brothers deliver a plain and devastating story about family and the traditions that bind them, set against the majestic and inhospitable wild.
We first meet our teenage son, David (Josh Wiggins), as he de-boards a rickety single-engine airplane in Livingston on his way to meet his father Cal (Matt Bomer) for their annual hunting trip. From their first interactions, we learn that father and son are shy and uncertain of each other; it's a reintroduction they seem to go through year after year. David's at a weird and vulnerable age this time around. He knows a lot more than he did last year, and maybe he's starting to think he doesn't even like this hunting stuff, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. His mom won't stop calling and texting from Texas and he still doesn't know how to drive a car, which is just to say, the future is still malleable. Who in this moment can predict what kind of man David will become?
Growing up in Montana, a young kid's first kill is a very big deal. I learned a lot about this after teaching college composition at the University of Montana, where it seemed like every other personal essay from the boys in class had a variation on the title, "Hunting with my father." They wrote about how much they wanted to impress him, how hard and cold and frustrating and terrible it was to fail, and finally, the elation and triumph of achieving their first kill. Cal and David's story belongs to this greater, archetypal and damn-near tribal cultural experience.
And again, we have this perpetual, awe-inspiring mountain backdrop. The film makes frequent use of real-life animals, up close, and in-frame with the actors. When I first saw Walking Out at Sundance, just about every question from the audience wanted to know about the animals. How did they do that!? (Sub-question: compared to a real-life Montana grizzly, can perhaps the CGI bear in The Revenant suck it?) The animals are so much characters that when father and son come across a carcass in the snow surrounded by fresh warm blood, it feels like stumbling on a horrible crime—like somebody should put up yellow tape around the scene.
Finally, Walking Out offers up a crash course in not just how to track and hunt an animal, but why (aided in no small part by dream-like flashbacks to Cal's own father, played by Bill Pullman). For example, did you know that eating cold snow when you're thirsty only wastes energy? Or that there's a fine line between hunting for survival and cold-blooded killing, and that it takes integrity and wisdom to know the difference?
Walking Out opens at the Roxy Fri., Oct. 13.