Music teacher James (Timothy Morton) has recently been fired. With newfound freedom, and some unresolved issues in his current relationship with his long-term girlfriend Joan (Karrie Crouse), James decides to set out alone to hike Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail. At first, all is great. He mostly keeps to the backwoods and is able to dodge any real, meaningful connections with other people. Unfortunately, though, once the trail opens up, and he’s forced to start socializing again, everything falls apart.
First he’s cheating on his girlfriend at a barn party, then he’s injured and stuck with the heavy metal-loving journeyman Lyman (Bryan Marshall) and his young son, Bo (Harrison Cole). Try as he might, James can’t seem to shake the duo, and he finds himself drawn into the dramas of Lyman’s life just as he continues to try to distance himself from his own.
James is one of those main characters that you may not necessarily like. He’s got that air about him where he thinks what he’s doing is “deep” and “enlightening” but, really, he’s just running away from his problems. Rather than confront some ugly feelings and thoughts in his relationship, he’d rather go on a long-a*s hike alone. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that they never try to force the audience into thinking he ever truly comes around, either. The film ends in as realistic a fashion as his actions throughout the film would suggest.
Which is another credit to the film, in that it doesn’t necessarily telegraph ahead of time where it’s going to go, and as much as it’s a journey for James, so too is it a journey for the audience. Mainly because, even though we have an idea of what type of person James is, we don’t really know him enough to predict how this is all going to go down, and the film smartly allows us to get to know him as it unfolds.
Which may or may not work for everyone. For me, while I was not a fan of James, I did enjoy the experience of the film overall. Pilgrim Song is full of many ideas and emotions, but it will require the input and interpretation of the individual audience member to shape it in the end. For some, this will resonate more strongly than others, and the meditative pace of the film will allow for more understanding and contemplation. For others, it’s a guy in the woods running away from his problems. Good films can be a bit of everything at once, though.