If survival novelist Jack London ever had lunch with Carroll Ballard (filmmaker of the rapturous The Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf), their napkin-sketch plot would no doubt resemble Walking Out, a sublimely beautiful tale of father-son bonding in the Montana wilderness. Transitioning from testy estrangement to a serious state of emergency, the movie packs an impressive amount of psychology within its bare-bones plot, which begins with smartphone-addled teen David (Josh Wiggins) arriving at the frigid, woodsy outpost of his divorced dad, Cal (Matt Bomer, born to this). Their annual custody visits used to be a lot happier, you sense; nowadays, David can barely stand his father’s insistence on such manly tasks as bird-shooting and trekking into the higher reaches of the mountainous “Crazies” in order to secure the boy’s first moose kill.
Away they go, though, and with every step, a counternarrative of parental concern—the only legacy Cal has to pass down—takes root. There are bird calls to be learned, sounds of bubbling brooks to be sussed out. (David Quammen’s 1980 short story on which this is based has the verisimilitude that only a longtime outdoorsman could supply.) When the moose itself is discovered, dead, destroyed by cavalier hunters who neglected to harvest their kill, some kind of ancient parental gift is denied; you begin to feel Walking Out in your gut for its soulful, elegiac nature. And then the bear comes.
Co-writers, co-directors and brothers Alex and Andrew J. Smith—who outdo The Revenant for sincerity, depth and gorgeousness—mount their tale with enough confidence to cut away from the action. Flashbacks to Cal’s own stern father (a red-hatted Bill Pullman) situate the film on a battleground between impulsiveness and maturity. You might chuckle at the movie’s torturous endgame, in which David must literally assume the weight of his father, toting him Luke-and-Yoda-style out of harm’s way. But to see Cal’s eyes shine with tears as his boy rises to the occasion, all the lessons not in vain, is to commune with a movie of great heart and courage.
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