Years ago, I noticed a phenomenon that, to my mind, spoiled otherwise fine films. I saw it first in The Other Side of Heaven, but I kept seeing examples of it, and I even wrote and presented a paper on the subject. I called it “the death wish scene.” A death wish scene is not just poorly written, or badly placed, or unnecessary. A death wish scene is a scene in a movie so poorly conceived that it ruins the picture. It’s a scene of such astounding idiocy that you wonder if the producers secretly wanted the movie to fail.
Over the years, I have developed a great fondness for death wish scenes. There aren’t many of them. Sure, lots of films have scenes that don’t work. That’s not a death wish scene. A DWS has to directly contradict everything else that you like about the film. It’s an act of deliberate, in-your-face narrative destruction.
And I saw one last night! A rare sighting, to be sure. In a major Hollywood film, a film starring big-name movie stars, a film with, like, a budget, a distribution deal in place, good craft services. That kind of film.
The film is A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Directed by Ken Kwapis, written by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman. It’s based on a book my wife and I love, Bill Bryson’s account of his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. We’re big Bill Bryson fans anyway, and looked forward to this film. Redford plays Bryson, and Nolte plays his old friend Stephen Katz, who hiked the AP with him. Thompson plays Bryson’s British wife, Catherine.
The book isn’t really about any issue of great import. It’s a gently humorous account of out-of-shape middle-aged men taking on a physical challenge that was probably a bit more than they were up for. It’s about the eccentric characters they met on the trail. And to some degree, it’s a book of self-discovery. It’s also about the AP itself, a two thousand mile hiking trail through some of the prettiest terrain on this continent. I figured that the movie would be like the book–a genial, reasonably low-stakes character-driven comedy. Robert Redford isn’t the first actor I would choose to play Bill Bryson, but he’s certainly a fine actor, and Nolte’s perfect as Katz, who, in the book, is Bryson’s grouchy, hard cussing comic foil.
But the movie makes some odd choices from the beginning. Bill Bryson is a professional travel writer. He’s also a fine historian, and a science writer of the first order, but he made his bones writing about his travels in Australia, and Europe, and the UK. Once he got the idea of writing about the Appalachian Trail, he contacted his agent and his publisher, and got an advance to pay for it. That’s all perfectly clear in the book. But the screenwriters, for some reason, decided that, in the movie, he wasn’t there to write a book. No, indeed. This was just something personal he had to do. His wife doesn’t think it’s remotely a good idea–she frankly thinks he’s gone mental–but she finally relents when Katz agrees to come along. And she loves him, and he loves her, and she’s willing to be supportive. And so, in the movie, Redford, as Bryson, consistently has to say ‘I’m not writing a book.’ Like, this hike isn’t about something as crass as mere commerce.
That’s not the death wish scene–we haven’t gotten there yet–but it is an odd choice. It’s as though the film’s producers decided that we wouldn’t care about this man’s spiritual journey of self-discovery if it were somehow sullied by him also carrying out his writerly obligations. Me, I like competent professional people trying to do a difficult job well. I think that makes for a fine conflict. If they also learn something about themselves, all the better.
But this bizarre decision makes Katz’ presence all the stranger. Stephen Katz is Bryson’s alcoholic friend, from his home town of Des Moines. He’s spent his life working a series of blue-collar jobs. In the book, it’s clear that Bryson pays Katz’s way. Bryson buys his backpack and tent, pays for the food and lodging, when they’re able to find lodging. No big deal–it all comes out of Bryson’s advance, and Katz knows from the outset that he’s going to be a character in the book. It’s perfectly clear in the movie that Katz can’t afford to be on this hike. But they sort of gloss over it. Again, we haven’t gotten to the death wish scene yet, but from the beginning, we sense how poorly the film’s director/producers/screenwriters had thought through the film’s most important character and story decisions.
But not entirely. Early in their hike, Bryson and Katz meet Mary Ellen, an astonishingly annoying woman who denigrates their equipment, appearance, and supplies, who chatters away at them incessantly. Kristen Schaal was perfectly cast as Mary Ellen, and her scenes with them are a treat. And other eccentric folks they meet on the way are equally vivid in their film incarnations.
So the film is plodding charmingly along, marching down the trail with confidence and aplomb. And then, for no reason whatsoever, it flings itself off a ledge into the waiting arms of a bear.
The AT (inevitably) crosses highways along its course, and at times, passes close to small towns, where hikers can find a restaurant, a motel, and (most important), a laundromat. Bryson and Katz arrive in such a town, and check into a motel. The motel’s proprietor is Jeannie, played by Mary Steenburgen. And the three of them make small talk. And we can see a budding, mutual attraction between Bryson and Jeannie.
Later that night, Bryson runs a shower, but before he can step in, he realizes the bathroom did not come with towels. Wearing a bathrobe, he goes into the motel office, and sees Jeannie. Wonderful Mary Steenburgen. She apologizes, and goes with him to an outdoor storage room where they keep the towels. She gets him a towel; they make small talk. And you can see, there’s a spark. And they look at each other, and they’re about to kiss. And then Katz interrupts them.
And the movie’s irretrievably ruined.
Later, Katz teasing him, asks Bryson if he’d ever cheated on Catherine. And Bryson says no, and we believe him. Katz, crass and cynical, doesn’t. He assumes, as a matter of course, that Bryson, world traveler, has had a few on the side. And this Bryson, the Bill Bryson of the towel scene, probably has. But the Bill Bryson established earlier in the movie, would never cheat. And thus is the movie ruined.
It’s not that the basic situation is implausible. Steenburgen’s Jeannie is an attractive, deeply lonely woman, stuck in a small town, running a motel. It’s not inconceivable that she would be attracted to a guy like Bryson, or that he would be attracted to her. But the whole first fifth of the movie establishes Bryson for us in terms of his family and his marriage. He and Catherine are exceptionally close. He’s a good Dad, and that’s important to him. In the book, Bill Bryson takes every possible opportunity to phone home, and those phone calls are immensely sustaining to him.
It’s as though the movie goes out of its way to establish Bryson as a decent family man. Every choice, in the early going, develops that characterization. And then, for no reason, the movie throws in, not an affair, but at least the potential for one. Even hired Mary Steenburgen to play the love interest. Nothing early in the movie sets it up, and nothing later in the movie justifies it.
It’s the very definition of a death wish scene. It’s as though someone went ‘you know what this character needs? A love interest. To attract women viewers, you know. Chicks love romance.’ I know, it’s unfair of me, to make that assumption, that the film’s director or producers are that moronically sexist. But really, it’s as though someone decided ‘this guy can’t go on a spiritual quest without being tempted by adultery.’ Whereas lots of hikers and campers go on perfectly satisfactory personal journeys without being remotely tempted to cheat.
I will say this; that scene, all by itself, ruined a movie my wife and I were enjoying up to that point. Robert Redford and Mary Steenburgen are fine actors, and attractive people. But the scene involving their characters was not just unnecessary. It was idiotic. They were making a movie about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Make that movie.