“This year we hunt big game. This year you get your first kill.” So says seasoned hunter Cal (Matt Bomer) to his teenage son David (Josh Wiggins), who’s arrived in rural Montana for his annual visit, and even those going in unfamiliar with the premise of Alex and Andrew Smith’s rapturous film may suspect there's some impending irony lurking beneath those words. Cal and David don’t see much of each other, and it’s clear from the boy’s attachment to his cellphone that Cal’s rugged, tough-guy ethos is mostly alien to him. The boy loves his father, and dad loves him back, but it’s hard to see evidence at first that these two are in any way related.
They’re headed to the beautiful, forbidding Crazy Mountains in search of moose — one moose in particular, which Cal has been tracking for the past two weeks. Along the way, the father hopes to teach the son lessons about both hunting and life. The film cuts intermittently to lovely grainy footage of young Cal and his own father (Bill Pullman) out hunting, as if to underline the notion that this passing of wisdom is as natural and constant as the unspeakably beautiful fields, streams and mountains of Montana around them. And it is — though perhaps not in the way that Cal might have first hoped or intended.
Let’s just say things don’t go as planned. To call Walking Out a thriller wouldn’t quite do it justice, though it certainly is gripping. Based on a short story by David Quammen, it maintains the hard-edged simplicity of that abbreviated form even as it becomes a drama of survival, mixed with elements of a coming-of-age tale. It also calls into question those rituals of manly bonding — suggesting that real life lessons, the lessons that actually matter, get passed on not through earnest proclamations but harrowing, soul-crushing experiences.
The Smiths strike a surprising tone throughout. As Cal and David’s ordeal proceeds, the film’s style doesn’t become grittier or more intense. Todd McMullen’s cinematography continues to capture the solemn beauty of the Crazy Mountains with all the respectful awe of a devoted pilgrim; this is certainly one of the year’s most amazing, unreal-looking films. That sense of curious, sacred distance also is reflected in Dutch cellist and composer Ernst Reijseger’s gently lilting score, which at times resembles contemplative religious music. (Shocker: Reijseger’s pieces have appeared in numerous Werner Herzog films, including Grizzly Man.)
That’s not to say that we’re kept from engaging with what’s happening on screen. It would be hard not to be moved by these performances, particularly Bomer’s as the tender but demanding Cal, whose own demons gradually emerge as the film proceeds. But can one call watching human agony set amid the unchanging, heavenly majesty of nature a disconnect? Walking Out suggests that it’s all part of the same phenomenon — that true knowledge is passed through heartbreak and suffering. It’s a beautiful movie about unthinkable things.