Reviewed Jun 22, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
The Hunter is a curious film of no particular critical reputation. Although it has some novelty value as the last film to star the popular Steve McQueen, The Hunter is sadly a missed opportunity. McQueen was dying from cancer and sometimes the man’s frailty adds an extra dimension to the character he portrays. Indeed, in that he plays a modern day bounty hunter the film clearly aspires to the modern Western that gradually emerged following the work of director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Hunter is thus something of a transitional film, an offbeat hybrid between a looser 1970s character portrait of changing values and the demands of the emerging 1980s action movie.
American film is often obsessed with the nature of Patriarchy as the proper social, political and ideological order for society. And the proper operations of a smooth Patriarchy are of course expressed in the fields of law and order as a traditional system. Correspondingly, The Hunter is the study of an anachronistic patriarch and his place in a changing contemporary world. It is a biographical movie inspired by the exploits of Ralph “Papa” Thorson, considered the last professional bounty hunter, and opens with an extract from an 1872 law validating the profession. It is clear from the outset that Thorson is a throwback to this former era, struggling to find value in the world around him. His status as worthy hero and suitable father is what the film addresses. As Thorson protects his pregnant girlfriend, the film is about the suitability of an antiquated heroic character type to take his place in the modern world as what the film considers the most important of role models – a father – hence Thorson’s symbolic nickname.
Thorson is thus depicted as a very caring man, even tender. Although he finds stray criminals and bail jumpers for money, he is clearly concerned over their well being. He even goes so far as to almost adopt a young Afro-American criminal, offering him employment to keep him out of jail. The criminal virtually moves into his household, which is always full of Thorson’s male friends – the film rare in its sense of a makeshift community around the traditionally lone hero. It is a calculated softening of McQueen’s image. But what enables the character to triumph above his anachronistic nature is a kind of arrested innocence. Behind this modern cowboy of action is a gentle man who collects old toys, and in one scene falls asleep clutching one. Throughout the film this essentially soft man must fight against the cynicism that surrounds him continuously. He almost falters, wondering why anyone would want to bring a child into this rotten world, but he has a good heart and finds that this justifies his position. This battle against cynicism as validated in the acceptance of patriarchal responsibility is an undercurrent throughout the film.
The notion of the suitability of certain men to make responsible fathers is an organizing theme throughout this fatally uneven movie. It is constructed clearly along terms of generational responsibility. Thorson is an old man charged, as are all old men the film suggests, with the responsibility of enforcing the law and chastising those who violate this law and misbehave. In that sense it is about the necessity and purpose an old man finds in his job to clean up the mess of a younger generation and guide it. It is this sense of innate responsibility that motivates the character more so than any joy he finds in action. Indeed, Thorson is often scared and worried in the action scenes, acutely aware of the dangers and risks they pose. To this end the film offers a cross-section of youthful criminals from offenders who need guidance to fun-loving “good ole boys” more mischievous than criminal to truly violent, reprehensible youths and finally to the real evil, drug using psychotic youths who consider murder their personal form of validation. The real threat to Thorson’s aspirations is the psychotic youth (who recalls in part Scorpio from Dirty Harry with his warped innocence the epitome of 1970s monstrousness the film suggests) who must be purged if family and society can continue.
Despite The Hunter’s lack of critical standing, it is unfair to dismiss it entirely. However it is an uneven film that earnestly strives for a tonal balance between action and character, between suspense and comedy. Sometimes it falls flat or veers away, yet it has a charming central character and an admirable concern for the demands of fatherhood. Ultimately the lack of a strong visual style works against the film and it appears mostly functional work from a director better known for his television output and sadly unable to rise to the complex tonal demands of the material. As mentioned at the outset it is best considered an early measure of the type of action-based material that would proliferate in Hollywood with ever more technical polish.