Crafting a convincing tale of survival against steep odds in a harsh, unforgiving landscape would seem to be out of the reach of most low-budget independent filmmakers. Fortunately for twin-brother directors Alex and Andrew Smith, they’re able to rely on a key visual effect that won’t show up on any ledger sheet: the mountains around Montana’s Paradise Valley. Gorgeously shot in Big Sky Country, and stripped down to its most elemental components, “Walking Out” strands father-and-son hunters played by Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins in the wilderness after an accident, and its unabashedly folky, less-is-more approach proves quietly moving.
Fourteen-year-old David (Wiggins) spends most of his time with his mother in Texas, but once a year, he hops on a duel-engine plane to see his semi-hermetic father Cal (Bomer), who lives a roughneck’s life in Montana. We don’t get too much in the way of backstory, but when David arrives, the Smith brothers manage to sketch out their touch-and-go relationship – pleasant enough, but short on pleasantries. While David would be happy to hang around Cal’s cabin with his video games, his dad has a more archetypal task planned out: He’s been stalking a moose through the nearby mountains, and wants to make it David’s first kill.
The Smith brothers never overdo it on any Oedipal undercurrents, and while David isn’t exactly eager to go trekking uphill through the snow for several days, he’s at least willing to go along with it. The film takes its time with the two as they hike up a remote trail, making careful note of each landmark, and allowing Bomer – adopting modern frontiersman mannerisms without ever lapsing into caricature – to explain Cal’s quasi-animist philosophy of hunting and tell tales of the Basque shepherds who once haunted the hills.
Once they reach the top, however, things go south. The moose Cal had tagged has been shot and abandoned by a less ethical hunter – “some goddamn tourist,” he seethes – and they soon after spot a dead bear cub, whose mother is bound to be nearby. Some ill-considered decisions lead to a confrontation, and both men are wounded, Cal gravely. It falls to David to somehow drag his father back down the mountain before he succumbs to his injuries
While the early scenes of the struggle home are bound to evoke memories of “The Revenant” – the dialogue reduced to grunting and wheezing as the two make agonizingly slow progress through the snow – the Smiths aren’t interested in fetishizing their characters’ obvious suffering. Indeed, they’re careful not to include too many secondary conflicts or contrived additional obstacles, and while this naturalistic approach might test viewers eager for more visceral thrills, it allows the rhythms of instinct and survival to take over.
During breaks in the journey, the wounded Cal begins to reminisce about his own first moose kill when he was David’s age, occasioning some episodic flashbacks. These flights of memory, the Smith brothers’ only significant embellishments to the David Quammen short story on which the film is based, represent the film’s most structurally unnatural elements. But they also confer a plainspoken degree of symbolism and symmetry onto the whole odyssey, a lineage of austere yet deeply principled masculinity that sets the film up for its affecting climax.
Bill Pullman and Lily Gladstone both have brief, effective cameos, though “Walking Out” is thoroughly a two-hander, and Wiggins proves every bit Bomer’s equal as David is forced to grow up in a hurry. The Smith brothers work smartly with the resources they have, and cinematographer Todd McMullen seizes every opportunity to capture Montana’s natural splendor in radiant tones, while Ernst Reijseger’s meditative score provides graceful counterpoints.