Sunday, 21 February 2016

Three Great Movies... about walking the trail

A weekly series in which I watch a bunch of movies and pick out three of the best, each week a different theme and always spoiler-free. Published every Sunday.

I'm lucky enough to live in Perthshire, a region of Scotland known as "Big Tree Country". Dense forests with enormous trees, rivers, waterfalls, trails and dramatic viewpoints are but a short drive away. I love to spend time in the woods, regularly taking my camera and heading off for a few hours without seeing another soul. Solitude, silence, away from the world. And so I understand exactly why people remove themselves from the troubles of "normal" life and set out on long trails through the wilderness. Inspired by the DVD release of A Walk in the Woods, here's three stories about people who do just that, and their often emotional reasons behind it. These are not survival stories, at least not in the literal sense, but tales of people who’ve chosen to put themselves through a long trek for the sake of redemption and/or personal fulfillment.

The Way (2010)
"You don't choose a life, dad. You live one."

A poignant and at times quite moving story of a man who is compelled to walk the Camino de Santiago Trail, in memory of his son who died whilst attempting the same Spanish pilgrimage. Written and directed by Emilio Estavez, with Martin Sheen in the lead role (his real life Dad), you can tell this is a passion project for them both. Along the route a variety of characters are introduced, and the story becomes as much about them and their varying reasons for being there. When James Nesbit's character is first introduced he is so over the top as to seem like he's on the set of an entirely different movie, but as with all of the group, there is much more below the surface than first appears. By the end I was reminded just what a gifted actor Nesbit is. The same goes for Martin Sheen, much changed from his Apocalypse Now and Badlands days, but still as compelling as he's ever been. For me there were one or two directorial decisions that seemed out of place, such as parts of the soundtrack and Nesbit's opening scene, but it didn't really detract from this understated gem of a movie.

Wild (2014)
"If your nerve deny you - go above your nerve."

The true story of Cheryl Strayed, a young woman (played by Reese Witherspoon) trapped in a cycle of increasingly self-destructive behaviour as she struggles to cope with a marital breakdown and family tragedy. Instead of just accepting that's all there is to her life, she eventually regains control and sets out to walk the 1,100 mile Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). It's an escape and a way of finding herself, for want of a better phrase. The film looks beautiful (of course it does, how could it not be with scenery like that), it's rammed with metaphors and little poetic moments, and I loved the little quotes she writes in the notebooks at each waypoint. If you can't find even a glimmer of joy in the scene where she watches the setting sun, then you're a cold, cold human being. Witherspoon is fantastic, she must have put herself through a lot in the making of this, and convinces in all aspects of a difficult, fragile, yet ultimately very likeable character. I'm struggling to think of anything negative to say about it.

A Walk in the Woods (2015)
"John Muir once said, sometimes a man needs to grab a loaf of bread, throw it in a sack,
and jump over the back fence."

I remember Robert Redford saying at the time of the cinema release that he originally hoped for this to be a reunion with Paul Newman, a sort of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as grumpy old men. After Newman died, Nick Nolte instead joined him on the trail. Based on the Bill Bryson book, it follows two men, unfit and getting on in life, who attempt to walk the entire Appalachian Trail. All 2000+ miles of it. There are quite a few amusing situations in the first half, mostly involving Nick Nolte who looks like he's about to pass out after the first few yards of the walk. The best moments are not through the comedy though, but when they sit to reflect on their lives, alcoholism, and their place in the world. Those bits are thought provoking and a little bit lovely, I just wanted more of that. You get the feeling in the latter stages that as the characters are saying "we're getting too old for this", the actors are thinking the same, they do look ragged and worn out by the filming and by time. Although suitably so, that's how most folk on the trail will be. A gentle and easy to watch film, I think the more profound reasons for the characters of Wild and The Way to be walking the trail made those better films, but this was enjoyable all the same.

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