So deeply rooted in metaphor and allegory that it might as well be called “father!,” Alex and Andrew Smith’s “Walking Out” is a strong coming-of-age adventure that buries its vaguely biblical underpinnings beneath the heavy snows of a Jack London epic. Updated from a short story by naturalist David Quammen, it begins as a movie about the circle of life, and then thaws into a movie about survival. But while that might seem like a counterintuitive transition or even a contradiction in terms, this ruggedly elemental journey subsists on the raw knowledge that can be found in the space between the virtues we decide and the values we inherit. Many viewers could be left cold — especially as the Smith men track their characters with a hunter’s patience, and wait until the last possible moment to pull the trigger on the tragedy that defines them — but those interested in the fading myth of the American West will find as much to chew on here as they might on the bones of a dead moose.
Most of the time, David (Josh Wiggins) is your typical American teenager. He’s a blank and unformed kid who would rather stare at his iPhone than look out the window, even when that window is on a tiny plane soaring over the white-capped mountains of Montana. But every once in a while, David is forced to leave the modern world behind and visit his father at the foot of the “Crazies,” a crowded series of peaks that jut from the Earth like a mess of jagged teeth. Cal (Matt Bomer) is nothing if not a product of his environment.
Grizzled and wild-eyed, the guy is as remote as the terrain he calls home. He speaks of the animals he hunts like they’re subjects in an article he’s writing for The New York Times (“Mr. Moose,” “Mr. Bear,” etc.). He’s prone to traumatized flashbacks of hunting with his father (Bill Pullman), and sometimes — when the campfire gets real tall — he offers pearls of wisdom like “When death is in the air, when a man feels himself getting older, he doesn’t much want to kill anymore.”
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If not for Cal’s Abercrombie catalogue good looks — tragically wasted on someone who might go months at a time without seeing many other human beings — it would be hard to say how someone like him ever managed to meet a woman, let alone convince one to marry him. And when he picks David up at the airport and asks “You have a good year?,” it’s clear that Cal doesn’t recognize how sad the question sounds. For him, sacrifice and self-reliance are inextricable from manliness, and the distance that he keeps from his son is the only thing that connects him to his father, and his father’s father before that.
It’s not his job to nurture the boy, it’s his job to show David his own strength and then die. The fact that Bomer is only 39 and still in shape from “Magic Mike XXL” only serves to underline the extent to which myth has shaped his idea of masculinity. It also makes him seem a little crazy. Fortunately, the actor plays against his pretty boy type so convincingly that you might forget where you’ve even seen him before. He has the far-off look in his eyes of a guy who resented his pop right up to the moment where he fell in love with the romance of becoming him. Bomer gives a commanding performance in a movie that fails to realize how evocative he is, the Smiths defaulting to flashbacks that show us less about cowboys and gender codes than we can glean from the wild look in its lead actor’s face.
Cal definitely has his work cut out for him with David, who can’t even fathom the basic appeal of wanting to kill an animal for sport (same, kid). He’s as vulnerable as a baby calf up there in the Crazies, and Wiggins is considerably more believable as a timid city mouse than he is as someone with a genuine interest in his father’s lifestyle. However, both David and the young man who plays him manage to rise to the occasion, the two of them achieving a palpable desperation once an incident with an angry bear leaves the character with no choice but to carry his father down the mountain, like “The Ballad of Narayama” in reverse.
The Smiths, themselves forged from the American West, struggle to find the right balance between nature and nurture — story and myth. A needless third act dream sequence ices the idea that “Walking Out” is as conflicted as its characters when it comes to understanding the relationships between those opposite forces. The film appears to be more interested in the past than it is in the present, more keyed into the eternal than it is to the fading ethers of the archetype that Cal represents; its unsentimental view of the landscape is as sobering as its rare moments of action are sloppy. But few movies have evinced such a specifically American understanding of the role that love plays (or doesn’t) in becoming a man, or so openly confronted the notion that strength can only be passed down through suffering.
“In 30 years you’ll have a son of your own,” Cal tells David, “and you’ll want so badly for him to know who you are that you could cry.” If only we didn’t have to learn these things the hard way.
“Walking Out” is now playing in theaters.