The Hunted (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

'For me,' declares Friedkin, just hearing the Dylan lyric spoken by Johnny Cash is worth making a film for.

The Hunted

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro, Connie Nielsen, Ron Canada, José Zúñiga
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2003-08-12

"I decided to open the film in Kosovo, in 1999," says William Friedkin of The Hunted, now out on DVD from Paramount. "Because that is really the most recent war that the United States participated in... While this ethnic cleansing was going on in Kosovo, NATO was bombing these little towns as well. I mean, I guess we were bombing them, and destroying them, in order to save them, which was the phrase they used about Vietnam."

Aside from dating his DVD commentary, Friedkin here shows himself to be at once thoughtful and outraged by what he sees in the world outside movies. He goes on to describe the effects of this particular set of horrors on his special ops protagonist, Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro): "His soul snaps and he becomes so lost in an orgy of killing that, as we say in the film, he can no longer tell the sharks from the guppies." Trained years before by his long absent mentor L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), Aaron has lost all his bearings. And, given that he's hyper-trained to be a "killing machine," he has a hard time expressing himself. Thus begins the emotional journey of this sensitive assassin.

Kosovo appears a hellfire of explosions and gunfire reigns over the screen, intercut with shots of Aaron's eyes, sunk into his camouflage face paint, darting and worried. When one of his fellow officers helpfully notes, "This isn't a war! It's a massacre!" you get the idea that the Serbs aren't fighting by whatever rules war is supposed to follow. Instead, the commander hisses, "They fucked our mothers, so we will fuck theirs," gazes reverently on a poster of Milosevic, then orders the murder of all villagers, just because he can. The sheer malevolence of this target makes it look like Aaron is doing a right thing by killing him.

Still, the sequence ends badly, as Aaron jumps on the commander like Willard on Kurtz, all bloody ceremonial gutting and slashing. This viciousness, for which he has been so carefully trained, reveals why Aaron steps off once he's Stateside. By 2003, he's taking out those deer hunters in the Oregon woods, using only his gift for camouflage and huge serrated knife (Tom Brown calls this device, which he designed over some seven years, "a machine"). Perturbed by their eagerness to pursue such gentle and harmless prey, as well as their high-powered weapons, Aaron whispers at them, hoarsely, as if from nowhere: "When you kill with your hands, there is a reverence. There is no reverence in what you do."

Whatever he thinks he means, it's clear that Aaron has formidable issues. He takes these soon whimpering orange-vested guys with a few ritualistic swipes of his knife; and for a second, you might feel inclined to believe him when he insists that they're actually sent to hunt him, no the deer scampering through the trees. That notion is soon put to rest, however, when Bonham comes on the scene, reluctantly, of course, because heroes in such situations must always be reluctant. Knowing without being told that the psycho on the loose is "his boy," Bonham is drawn back into his old business, tracking a killer.

Thus transformed into Colonel Trautman to Aaron's Rambo (a relationship underscored by the Abraham and Isaac reference, which Friedkin admits is his idea, not the original script's), L.T. has to hold up under an onslaught of flashbacks detailing the training he laid on his "boy." He feels all kinds of guilt and distress, especially as he's never had to kill anyone himself, only train squads of kids to do it, then send them forth into their own personal moral purgatories (this part of the story is based on Brown's experience, who also trained killers and has never had to kill).

Though Aaron seeks out his mentor, Friedkin says, "The father is unable to offer any help because he's too wounded himself." That is, faux dad is living in the snowy woods of British Columbia, saving wild animals when they wander into man-made traps, by using green roots that, when chewed, turn into antibacterial agents. All these techniques, says Friedkin, come from the inspiration for the film, a tracker named Tom Brown. And Bonham does recall, when pressed by Abby, that this particular "boy" had a remarkable lack of remorse (good for the U.S. military, bad for the general public). This despite the fact that he sent multiple letters to L.T., requesting help dealing with his "nightmares": "How come you didn't answer my letters?" he moans during one outstandingly silly encounter.

Friedkin notes in his commentary his own affection for Aaron's oversize flaws and vexing complications. "The characters that interest me," he says, "are neither heroic nor villainous; they contain a little bit f both in their nature, which I believe most human beings who don't have brain damage contain within themselves... I believe it's a constant struggle in human nature, to have our better angels emerge, and often, some of us lose that struggle on a daily basis."

Unfortunately, this basis is diffused in the film's elaborately muddled and strangely absorbing father-son relationship. Aaron is surely rife with internal torment and longing for "dad," but The Hunted doesn't delve clearly into the riveting subtext that Friedkin discusses on the DVD commentary track, namely, the hypocrisy and abuses of the U.S. military and Defense Department, working overtime to create killers but denying responsibility for what goes wrong. Aaron is thus set up as a freak, rather than a logical extension of the system that produces him.

The film's disarray is structural as well: it cuts around three ways, among Aaron, Bonham, and mostly-by-the-book FBI agent Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen), who, Friedkin observes, has no compunction about using her weapon (he recalls a final scene that he shot but didn't use, in which Bonham cannot kill Aaron, and so she blows him away, no problem -- apparently, this didn't give proper weight to the father-son business, and so, it was dropped). While this shifting of focus might allow for an intriguing ambiguity of moral ground, the film lapses instead into a muggy lack of perspective. None of the characters is particularly compelling or committed to an ideal or even an evasion of responsibility. This makes it difficult to invest in any of them.

This difficulty may have to do with the film's reported rush to production, due to the infamous actors' strike that wasn't, followed by a lengthy period on the shelf. Or it may have to do with the fact that it is a designated "prequel" to a film that has not yet been shot, also to be directed by Friedkin and star Jones, tentatively called Shooter and based on Stephen Hunter's novel, Point of Impact. With the original project yet unmade, the disjointedness of the second (or rather, now the first), scripted by David and Peter Griffiths (who wrote Collateral Damage) might make sense. Such conjecture is mildly intriguing, but it only leads back to the film now released. The Hunted is confused, no matter it got that way.

As if to reinforce that it takes so many runs at its core relationship, the DVD includes six deleted scenes (none much missed in the final cut, except maybe a nifty many POV shot sequence wherein "Bonham climbs a tree") and four uninteresting documentaries. "Pursuing the Hunted" (in which everyone talks about the film's inspiration, tracker Tom Brown: Billy Friedkin goes on about the conception; Brown offers his perspective as "technical advisor" and Jones, Del Toro, and Nielsen their takes as actors); "Filming the Hunted" (Friedkin discusses his approach to making an action thriller ["It should be as lean and mean as possible"], praises phenomenal DP Caleb Deschanel's "restless" camera, and describes the "gimmick" that makes the car chase seem "new"; Friedkin being the king of car chases, he comes up with gridlock -- and it is, indeed, a decent idea); "Tracking the Hunted" (Tom Brown confirms his efforts to make the film's plot, weapons, and behaviors "authentic"); and "The Cutting Edge" (everyone talks about Washington's Elwha Dam as "inspiring" and "treacherous" final location).

Such reiteration on the DVD suggests the film's own tendency to repeat itself, in metaphors, images, and plot points. On one level, as Friedkin points out, this is a useful device, as, for instance, when Bonham remembers that he taught his killers by repetition and drills, without instructing them regarding "morality." At other times, the film fades into tedium, or doesn't follow up on stunning single ideas. Take, for instance, the opening moment, a black screen with typescript of the ominous prelude to Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," recited by Johnny Cash Himself. "Oh God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son,'" Cash intones. "'Well,' Abe says, 'Where do you want this killing done?' God says, 'Out on Highway 61!'"

"For me," declares Friedkin, "just hearing the Dylan lyric spoken by Johnny Cash is worth making a film for. None of it was planned upfront. It all came about as I started to work with and shape the material. You have to be open in that regard, you have to listen to what the film is telling you it wants to be." And damned if he doesn't make you see more significance in this film than you might have otherwise. He recalls that The French Connection was a completely different film when I shot it than what came out of the cutting room. Because the film kept saying to me, 'Oh no, I cannot carry this much weight.' I wanted to weight it down with a lot of really meaningful scenes that I had shot, that was a kind of scaffolding over the story." And here he recalls, reverently, Stravinsky's description of himself as "the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed."

Truth be told, The Hunted is nothing like a masterpiece, but Friedkin's commentary track almost redeems it. Self-effacing and wry, his observations rarely have anything to do with what's on screen at any given moment, but range over philosophy, ideology (his understanding of the morality of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarity), art (remembering his favorite "simple phrase" from Bullitt, celebrating the influence of the tunnel scenes in The Third Man or the brilliance of an actor who wholly embodies characters and worldviews, such as Jones), technique (his work with Deschanel during particular scenes), and his own quirky processes ("I try to make it nonjudgmental, and just present it as I see it"). To hear him describe the function of the mother (Leslie Stefanson) and daughter (Jenna Boyd), with whom Aaron shares a melancholy and loving history, his visit to their house almost makes sense, whereas when you see the film without Friedkin's observations, these scenes rattle about awkwardly.

Indeed, The Hunted is increasingly unwieldy. It lifts stunts and images from The Fugitive, Rambo, Predator, and Lethal Weapon without much consequence. Lost between the father and son, Abby has little to do but hang out with the other minority types -- her boss, Van Zandt (Ron Canada, here stuck playing the standard-issue black chief who sits behind his desk and blusters), and her partner, Bobby (José Zúñiga, playing an equally annoying stereotype, however admirably). But then, how could she possibly compete with the pandemonium of the masculine psyche, spread out, as it is here, across so vast a literal and ethical landscape? These unfortunate sons assume all the blame and brutality of the military mission, until it becomes unbearable.

As trite and bewildering as the film can be, it never loses sight of that tragedy. Which is not to say that Friedkin passes judgment, exactly: "There's so many restrictions on the police today, and on the military that there's more crime, and there are more guys who challenge the authority of the United States. Because they know that the United States has so many civil liberties laws and has adopted a sort of moral umbrella that, first of all, protects the fugitive more than the victim. That's something that I see, but it's not something that I choose to either endorse or condemn."

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