Toxic masculinity comes up often lately in the context of equality and civilized behavior: dominance, devaluation of women, extreme self-reliance, and the suppression of emotions. At first glance it would seem that Cal (Matt Bomer), the father in Alex Smith’s father/son film Walking Out is toxic masculinity incarnate. He starts off bloviating about hunting moose and grouse when his disinterested teenage son David (Josh Wiggins) comes to Montana to spend time with him. All that’s missing is a MAGA hat on Cal and he’d be the full deluxe 2017 “blood and soil” package. That is to say he’d probably be a Trump supporter if he ever deigned to read a paper, watch TV, or have any notion of social media. This man is disconnected from society, preferring the remote wildlife and landscape of Montana. We don’t know how David wound up in Montana, but it seems likely there’s shared custody at work. Cal alludes to David having been there the year before as well. David is absorbed with games on his phone and texting with his Mom in Texas. He cares nothing for live moose or grouse, much less dead ones and how they get that way.
Cal is excited to be taking David to kill his first moose, seeing the violence of hunting as sacred and profound and wants to share his faith with his son. He speaks of how primal David will feel coming home from a good kill. David has normal teenage uncertainty, exacerbated by his dad’s expectation of toughness and wildlife savvy in the snowy mountains. Cal hunts only for the meat following a strict set of rules about hunting ethics. He learned the ways of life and death and the mountain from his own father and he hews closely to the morality therein.
“Cal is excited to be taking David to kill his first moose, seeing the violence of hunting as sacred and profound and wants to share his faith with his son.”
As we get to know him better, Cal defies the obvious country stereotype. He does share his emotions easily and passionately. He expresses unexpected depth in his own coarse way. He tells David that he knows him because “I was you once.”
However, Cal doesn’t really know his son and David doesn’t know his father. David is a disappointing city boy to his dad. The forced bonding is awkward and confusing for two males with such very different definitions of what it means to be a father or a son. Cal wants the same groove with David that he had with his own father, Clyde (Bill Pullman) and tells David this, suggesting it was the most rewarding relationship of his life. He pushes David very hard to play out that script with him, hoping he’ll mutate, awakening a genetically transmitted nascent outdoorsman.
In flashbacks we learn about Cal’s formative time with Clyde. Cal craves isolation, but dreads it as well, fearing the silence he believes hurt his father. Discussing Clyde’s narcolepsy diagnosis after his wife died, Cal speculates that Clyde didn’t really have narcolepsy but in fact was just awake alone for so many empty hours.
“…the son becomes the father as David finds his own strengths, different from Cal but with the same will and endurance…”
For all his pretentious outdoors mansplaining, Cal is actually right about everything in the woods… and when shit goes bad from a traumatic accident David has to remember everything he was told and rely on Cal’s wisdom to haul himself and his dad, both injured, out of of the wild and back to civilization for help. Cal learns he has overestimated his son with his blind belief and hope in David having inherited his skills and that unearned faith has almost certainly doomed them both.
There are echoes of The Revenant in the challenges faced by the father and son. Ultimately, as the hero’s journey plays out again, the son becomes the father as David finds his own strengths, different from Cal but with the same will and endurance as they walk out.
Smith has built a powerfully stripped down film with the backcountry of Montana playing a main role. Josh Wiggins as David shows a range of acting breadth and depth rare in anyone, much less someone his age. in Cal, Matt Bomer captures the frustration and the passion of a man struggling to show his son the beauty he’s found in the world.
Walking Out is a beautiful and moving feature with themes as old as the mountains they traverse but still relevant to all fathers and sons.
Walking Out (2017) Directed By: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith. Written By: David Quammen, Alex Smith . Starring: Matt Bomer, Josh Wiggins, Bill Pullman.
8 out of 10