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With ‘Walking Out,’ Sundance Audiences Confront Their Hunting Preconceptions

It’s one of the strengths of “Walking Out” – part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival – that the movie can explore wilderness survival and father-son bonding and somehow still have room to teach us that big game hunting need not be as fractious a political issue as it first appears.

The lyrical and moving exploration of both the Montana backwoods and the human soul will get its third Sundance screening Monday evening in Salt Lake City and continue its bid for a distribution deal. Strong audience reaction and reviews – calling the film “moving and thrilling” and “captivating and poignant” – should help the film find an audience.

The 96-minute drama was written and directed by two Montana brothers, Alex and Andrew Smith. It tells the story of a divorced father and his estranged 14-year-old son, who comes to visit for a winter hunting trip. A struggle to understand each other becomes a struggle for survival, following a surprise encounter deep in the mountains.

In a post-screening Q & A Sunday night in Salt Lake City, the Smiths (previous directors of “Winter in the Blood”) said they set out first to make a movie about cross-generational understanding.

“To us, it was about a father trying to explain to his son who he is, almost like zen koans about life, through the process of hunting,” said Alex Smith. “I think it’s a lot about a parent doing their best to give the kid the best they have of themselves and the kid trying to figure out who their parent is.”

But the lessons about human relations are framed in terms of man’s relationship to the wild and its creatures, with a father seeking to pass down a lesson about the difference between killing and hunting. The former is driven by noxious motivations like ego and revenge, the latter by the purer driveby to sustain oneself as part of the food chain. So father Cal (Matt Bomer) shows son David (Josh Wiggins) how hunting culture should evoke an intense respect of all things wild, urging his son at one point to be “hunting for meat” not “hunting for fear.”

While the Smiths said they did not set out to make a pro-hunting or anti-hunting film, a couple of audience members said they had their views altered. “I had been anti-gun and anti-hunting,” one woman told the filmmakers. “This film shifts my attitude about hunting…and its value and its culture.” Another viewer, from Montana, said he appreciated hunting being depicted, not as brutal, but as an important part of the social fabric in much of America.

The Smiths cited a number of films as informing their depiction of man’s interaction with nature – including Akira Kurosawa’s “Dersu Uzala,” and a pair of acclaimed Australian films, “Walkabout” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”

Walking Out” nicely undercuts the tension of its man-against-nature narrative with the growing warmth and humor between father and son. “Don’t mix us up,” Cal urges David, in regard to sighting a moose. “I’m the ugly one in an Elmer Fudd cap.”

CAA is handling sales for the film.

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