Yeah, so I’m a sucker for anything Far North, for anything with sparse Arctic landscapes, and for anything involving man against the elements. Never Cry Wolf, starring Charles Martin Smith as a hapless guy stuck in the tundra, who ends up running naked (pre-Dances With Wolves) with the caribou, was a fabulous example of the genre. Now Smith has directed his own similar film, The Snow Walker, also based on a story by Farley Mowat.
But The Snow Walker suffers a bit from the fact that it was based on a 12-page short story rather than a novel. The elements are all there: a cocky bushpilot named Charlie Halliday (Barry Pepper) crash-lands in the remote north, but is saved from his own incompetence in the wild by the wits of an unexpected companion, an Inuit woman (Annabella Piugattuk). Kanaalaq, as she calls herself, just happened to be an unplanned passenger on Charlie’s flight, as he was attempting to give her a ride to Yellowknife, where she would hopefully get help for her tuberculosis. Needless to say, the plane goes down in the middle of nowhere, and they have to fend for themselves for the rest of the film.
As with any survival story, we get the dramatic obstacles facing our characters, most impressively (in my book) the mosquito swarm that would have caused Charlie to jump off a cliff in hysteria… if any cliff had been present. Apparently that scene was created by CGI, but director Smith said at the festival screening that there were days that the mosquitos WERE as bad as that scenario; so much so that they had to postpone filming. Yikes! What is funny is that you can’t help but notice the presence of these irritating bugs throughout the film in general, as they land on the actors’ faces in the middle of scenes, and buzz by the camera lens at any given time.
The Snow Walker treads the expected path: along with Charlie, we get to experience survival at its most fundamental. Kanaalaq teaches Charlie the most basic things, like hunting and fishing, making clothing and shoes, and creating a shelter. All of this in a landscape where the untrained eye would only see boggy ponds and marshy grass touching the horizon. In the meantime, winter looms, and Kanaalaq’s health slowly deteriorates, reminding Charlie of why they were thrown together in the first place.
The Snow Walker is a solid enough film that unfortunately suffers from seeming a bit thin at times. The characters of Charlie and Kanaalaq are just engaging enough to keep us interested in what is going on, but beyond that they don’t seem to have much depth. Charlie gets frustrated and kicks things. Kanaalaq gives him a patient and unruffled gaze. They get along, and don’t really fight. Other than the day-to-day hunting and gathering, which seems under control once Kanaalaq takes the reigns, there is not much drama.
But that said, The Snow Walker is a film that is somewhat old-fashioned (in a good way) in its storytelling. There is absolutely nothing offensive about it, other than a couple swear words, and gosh darn it, it’s educational in a way that “reality” shows like Survivor only hint at. And it is hard to find fault with a film that has such good intentions.