SXSW 2017: Walking Out
On its surface, Walking Out is a tale of impossible survival against tremendous odds. It’s the story of Cal, a divorced father who lives in the Montana frontier (Matt Bomer) who uses his semi-annual visits with his son David (Josh Wiggins) as sessions in the skills and etiquette of being the last gentleman of the untamed wilds. Over Thanksgiving break, they plan to hunt a moose Cal has tracked for several weeks and make it David’s first large game kill.
Cal believes in the sacredness of hunting for sustenance and a respect for the creatures and the land, referring to the moose with reverence and it’s official title, ‘Sir Moose’. After joy seeking, semi-automatic wielding ‘rednecks’ shoot up the moose and left it to die, Cal changes his original plan and hunts an elk, desperate for a full stock for the winter. The hunting takes them out of the way and into unexpected weather, and across the paths of grizzly bear dispute. A series of bad choices and mistakes leaves David injured and Cal wounded from an accidental gunshot, and worsening conditions leave the father and son with no choice but to walk out of their frozen, dangerous predicament. Along the way, David adapts his cunning to survive the impossible circumstances and through sheer will, hauls his father over untold miles of country to safety. With pride for his son’s conviction, and desperate to maintain consciousness, Cal tells the story of David’s grandfather (Bill Pullman) - his relationship with Cal and the rift between them that caused the grandfather to never hunt again.
In practice, Walking Out is an achievement of independent filmmaking and eschews the gimmicks of other survival films for a hard scrabble story of determination and fathers and sons. That being said, there are several choices that make the story a hard conceit to buy into. The script features frontiersman like ruminations on life that are delivered so earnestly in voiceover, like a motivational poster sprung to life in the moment it’s needed. It also ping pongs between optimistic and nihilistic, like we are watching the plot for ‘True Frontiersman’. It’s a credit to Matt Bomer’s skill as an actor that he makes these sometimes cheesy lines competent and not campy.
Bomer is capable if miscast - he’s far from the metropolitan spiritual healer he may be most famous for from the Magic Mike movies. A line explaining the disconnect between father and son has Cal explaining that he’s 30 years older than his son, but Bomer’s face doesn’t show any stress of time or age that gives this statement any weight. The visual language used for character interactions is also heavy handed or downright silly. Bomer’s Cal is cast as a solitary mountain man, but the directors Alex Smith and Andrew D. Smith choose to stage his entrance as a series of different incompetent people - first, he is irresponsibly late to pick up David at the airport; then, upon arriving, playfully bangs on the window from the cold outside to catch David’s attention; then detachedly stands some 100 yards from the window once David is outside, his back turned and facing the incoming snow flurries, a vision of masculinity and uncrackable mystique.
In truth, the breakout star of this film very well may be cinematographer Todd McMullen. A seasoned television director of photography for dramas such The Leftovers and Friday Night Lights, McMullen takes full advantage of the stunning natural vistas of the frozen west, emphasizing the isolation on Cal and David's faces, and expertly capturing low light sequences next to campfires. In the last third of the film, the ever encroaching threat of nature is given the respect and dread it deserves, and most of this is through the unwasted eye of McMullen’s camerawork.