In literature, the state of Montana is represented most clearly and most often by its own. Movies, with their high production costs and logistics, are the reverse: the star directors come from elsewhere. Perhaps the story is set in Montana, but filmed in Canada for tax credits.
"Walking Out" is a rare intersection of Montana filmmakers adapting a Montana author and shooting in Montana. The advance reviews are right: It's a fantastic movie. After "Walking Out" ends, you'll likely feel an urge to call your father.
"Walking Out" is Alex and Andrew Smith's follow-up to "Winter in the Blood," the sibling writer-directors' 2013 adaptation of a James Welch's novel. The Smith brothers based the film on a short story by Livingston-based author David Quammen, perhaps now most famous for writing an entire issue of National Geographic about Yellowstone.
The story is spare: a backwoods father and his estranged city-kid son set out on a hunting trip in the Montana backcountry in winter. While things go terribly wrong, the complicated relationship between aging parents and maturing children remains the centerpiece.
When we meet the father, Cal, he's a stern checklist of hard-core Montana features. Even in wintertime, he drives a soft-top Land Rover. It's as vintage as his cabin and his flannel hat. Needless to say, he hates his son David's videogames. Where they're going, there's no reception for that smartphone either. In Matt Bomer's characterization, Cal is gruff and visibly struggles to say what he means. The faces of both Bomer and Josh Wiggins make this shared regret plain through the silences. The struggle that fathers and sons have communicating is threaded through the film.
At first, David is reluctant to go hunting and doesn't seem to grasp the meaning of the trip. He doesn't want to kill anything, much less sleep in a two-person shepherd hut in winter. That video game, with a character named Aeneas, carries a bit of foreshadowing.
In flashbacks, viewers see Bill Pullman in an excellent portrayal Cal's father, a widower who imparts a disciplined knowledge of hunting and the outdoors to his son. The memories have an appropriately washed-out vignette feel as a teenage Cal and his dad go on a hunting trip for the teen's first moose. Kudos should go to the casting director who found Alex Neustaedter, who plays the younger Cal and resembles both Bomer and Wiggins.
Both Bomer and Wiggins give nuanced performances in a script that doesn't employ much dialogue. The two grow together as disaster inevitably strikes — they have a run-in with a grizzly bear and the film turns full survivalist.
If you have thoughts on realism in wilderness survival movies, there's a comment board for you. Even viewers who loved "The Revenant" had complaints about some aspects. Leonardo DiCaprio's wounded trapper traverses rivers, streams and snow after a savage bear attack. It is the stuff of legend, based on a story about the pioneer Hugh Glass, and director Alejandro González Iñárritu filmed the legend. There's nothing wrong with that, though. He shot it in the most extravagant, and beautiful, way anyone could.
At the other artistic extreme, initial reviews of the new Idris Elba and Kate Winslet vehicle, "The Mountain Between Us," indicate that it's nearly absurdist in its plotting of survivalist derring-do somewhere high in the Idaho mountains.
In contrast, "Walking Out" stays rooted in the real-life dangers of the wilderness, one of the ways it's true to its location. The landscape is seductive but deadly. It takes only a few innocent mistakes or miscalculations to get yourself injured or killed miles from any help. Cal is a skilled outdoorsman, not an action hero, a feature that raises the emotional stakes in a way that ridiculous outdoors films like the extreme-sports remake of "Point Break" never could. The Smiths are more interested in atmospherics and human drama.
They admirably insisted on shooting in their home state, and the payoff is visible in every scene. They brought their cast and crew in January 2016 to Hyalite Canyon Recreation Area near Bozeman and to the Paradise Valley and the Crazy Mountains. The logistics of shooting winter scenes must've been daunting but are clearly worth it. Filming without leaving tracks over the snowfields must've been a project in and of itself; shooting on narrow, snow-covered trails must have been a challenge.
Acting in the cold likely looks unpleasant — with limited daylight, they had to be ready to shoot at 5 a.m. Nonetheless, Wiggins and Bomer are intense but never histrionic. If at times father and son appear to be freezing, it's because they were.
The cinematography by Todd McMullen ("The Leftovers," "Friday Night Lights") captures the imposing beauty of the Montana winter. At times, you'll find yourself reaching for a jacket.
The contemporary classical score, with baroque allusions and eerie dissonance, was written by Ernst Reijseger (Werner Herzog's "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and "The White Diamond.")
The creative investment by everyone involved in this Montana project seems to be paying off.
The film premiered at Sundance in January, and now that it's going into wider release, positive reviews from the national-grade New York Times and Rolling Stone have been filed. The notorious TomatoMeter was steady at 90 percent as of this filing. It's a remarkable feat for a small-budget film, one that sets a high mark for Montana movies.