Pilgrim Song Takes to Appalachia


Disaffected and searching for clarity and answers, James (Timothy Morton) takes to the Kentucky Appalachians’ Sheltowee Trace Trail in Pilgrim Song, setting in motion a mountain-hiking odyssey of lackadaisical introspection. Martha Stephens’s indie shares some of the patient rural rhythms of Kelly Reichardt’s similar if far superior 2006 Old Joy, as well as a shaggy-bearded main character wandering around the woods. Yet underlying James’s trek aren’t Old Joy‘s political undercurrents but rather more general notions of regret, fear, and guilt, all related to his unemployment—having been fired from a music-teacher job that already barely interested the former band musician—as well as his strained relationship with girlfriend Joan (Karrie Crouse). Stephens’s work takes its time establishing an atmosphere of quiet, directionless self-examination before developing some actual drama. That concerns James’s relationship with Lyman (Bryan Marshall) and his son, Bo (Harrison Cole), an equally aimless duo still smarting from the breakup of Lyman’s marriage. Morton exudes an unassuming soulfulness that serves his wandering, and more than slightly indulgent, fiddle-playing protagonist well. The film is as off-the-cuff as James and Lyman’s kindred-spirit rapport, albeit to its ultimate detriment, as so little occurs, and so little seems to be at stake, that the action takes on the quality of a tossed-off, not-especially-melodic country-music ditty.