The Hunted

by Dan Sallitt

Published in 24fps, Spring 2003.

It's almost beside the point to call The Hunted a good or bad film.  Clearly a formula action-thriller constructed out of a string of clichés, it's also a usable vehicle for the controversial, distinctive style of director William Friedkin.  To like the film as much as I do, you have to appreciate the spectacle of a talented director capitalizing on the opportunities offered by dubious material.  An interesting way to approach this film is to describe the problems that the project poses, and then to observe the effect of Friedkin's style on the film's resistant core of genre convention.

The Hunted’s script, by David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths and Art Monterastelli, is about Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), a battle-shocked veteran whose covert actions as a government operative are spinning bloodily out of control, and L. T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones), an expert in hand-to-hand combat who taught Hallam how to kill and is enlisted by the FBI to track him down.  An unsatisfactory prologue establishes Hallam as a warrior against the Serbs in Kosovo, giving us in the process the film’s worst dialogue and most indifferent direction.  Fortunately, the script pulls itself together after this unnecessary introduction and becomes serviceable, though deeply beholden to industry custom.  Let’s tally up the genre tropes: Hallam has slipped his reins because of battle fatigue, helpfully illustrated with subjective flashbacks.  Bonham is a taciturn man of nature, a wilderness tracker like his father, a protector of animals, reluctant to be pulled back into the world of war.  He has never killed, though he has taught many others to kill.  Hallam regards Bonham as a surrogate father.  Bonham’s FBI contact is a beautiful, no-nonsense woman (Connie Nielsen), to whom Bonham is attracted.  Bonham finds Hallam early in the film and the FBI makes an arrest, but Hallam escapes to set the stage for an even bigger confrontation, which is deferred by several narrow escapes, including a car chase.  Bonham has a fear of heights, established early in the film, that prevents him acting against Hallam at a key moment.  The FBI warns Bonham off the Hallam case in the final act: “He belongs to us.”  But Hallam disobeys and uses his tracking stills to find his prey in the wilderness of the city.  Despite a massive deployment of government forces, the climax somehow comes down to a hand-to-hand fight between Bonham and Hallam, a protracted affair in which many flesh wounds are inflicted, despite both combatants’ demonstrated mastery of the science of the quick kill.  Bonham finally dispatches Hallam, after which he strokes the forehead of his surrogate son.

The biggest problem posed by this laundry list of genre requirements is not so much predictability as it is the rigidly elaborated structure of escalating violence that must trump the needs of character development and internal narrative logic.  The well-worn dynamic of tortured father and son pitted against each other, no problem in itself, here has the unhappy effect of exposing how little suited this action-thriller template is to dealing effectively with any aspect of the human condition.  Surely it would be preferable for such scripts not to pretend that characterization is driving the action.

Many good directors, faced with such a project, would make a valiant effort to build up the human underpinnings of the story, an effort that generally meets its doom as the action arc peaks in the second half.  Friedkin isn’t at all tempted in this direction: his style is dedicated to the premise that people and actions cannot be understood.  His alternate plan is to chip away at the solidity of both the action structure and the rudimentary character motivations, hoping to arrive at an abstract, associational web of activity that he can use as a vehicle for his own abiding interest, which is the horror of a world of otherness.  This plan of battle against the recalcitrant script is no more assured of success than any other, but Friedkin has no choice in the matter.

Here are some of the components of Friedkin’s style.

  1. A tendency to begin and end scenes with abrupt, jolting edits that cut off some of the scene’s action.  Friedkin truncates scenes throughout The Hunted (for instance, when Hallam is being interrogated by his government captors), but this technique becomes more obvious after the action plot gathers steam, as suspense buildups are routinely eliminated in favor of jagged transitions that sometimes require effort for us to scan.
  2. Related to #1, a marked preference for surprise over suspense.  An early example is the sudden beating that Bonham gives the poacher; a more compelling example is the first on-screen encounter of Bonham and Hallam, switching abruptly back and forth from conversation to fistfight.  The truck crash that frees Hallam from his government captors is strikingly edited so that the horror of the collision grows unexpectedly out of the chilly calm of the conversation that precedes it.
  3. A propensity for long lenses and shaky handheld shots.  This borrowing from cinema-verite suggests not only distance, but also a certain difficulty in filming the subject.
  4. An acting style that is restrained and unrevealing even with lead characters, and often completely automaton-like for minor parts.  Most directors try to play up a bit of human feeling in functional scenes like the ones in which Hallam is decorated, or in which he is interrogated by government agents; Friedkin prefers to drain such scenes of all warmth.
  5. Related to #4, an unusually obvious use of dialogue dubbing.  The effect is used selectively, sometimes to play up a sense of mystery and threat, other times to remove the last bit of humanity from procedural scenes.
  6. Within the shot, the appearance of something uncanny (Hallam’s blackened face in the forest) or mysterious (Bonham dropping suddenly to the ground while tracking Hallam) or unnerving (Hallam in the trees above the hunters).  Despite the conspicuous, aggressive editing in Friedkin’s films, his most powerful effects depend on the duration of the shot—the takes in his films are not usually long, but they are long enough to preside over some unsettling change in the character of the space.

Friedkin’s style is coherent to a great extent: that is, the different elements of his style combine meaningfully.  His taste for fragmentary, off-balance scenes eats away at the rise and fall of drama that normally promotes identification; within this identification vacuum, his suppression of affect in the actors and his attraction to the uncanny and the threatening create the feeling that no identification is possible, and that action is unpredictable and entropic.

The best Friedkin films usually start with a focal point for identification that the audience is forced to relinquish with some discomfort.  (In The French Connection, this focus of identification is the mission of the law enforcement officer; in The Exorcist, our affection for and protectiveness of children; in Cruising, the inscribed audience’s sense of a boundary between heterosexuality and homosexuality.)  To my mind, the script of The Hunted does not lend itself to any such productive attack on our patterns of identification.  Friedkin can shoot holes in the dramatic throughline until it supports almost no weight, but he can’t replace the destroyed drama with anything useful to him.  In a few select instances, he manages to eliminate a genre convention altogether.  For instance, rapid editing destroys almost all traces of the gimmick of Bonham’s fear of heights and how it impedes his hunt.  Similarly, Bonham’s mandatory meaningless feint at romance with the FBI agent is somehow never consummated in the final cut, and not missed.  Still, the film’s most important genre clichés—the rote escalation of action, and the father-against-son motif—are intractable.  Friedkin gives them little of his energy, but they still occupy large chunks of screen time.

So the movie works or doesn’t work, depending on what you’re interested in.  There are many powerful scenes that require no apologies: Bonham’s first confrontation with Hallam in the woods, with terse, frightened conversation interrupted suddenly by lethal blows, effectively parried; the nightmarish crash of the government van, with Hallam slowly retreating from the carnage into the recesses of the telephoto frame; the flashback to Jones’ wartime class in guerrilla warfare, brisk, horrifying, and utterly impersonal.  Even working against the grain of the script, Friedkin has more than enough opportunity to shape a cinematic world where the face of civilization is chilly and impenetrable, and the forces outside the confines of human institutions are mobile, atavistic, and uncontrollable.

I’m finishing this article on a bus where a tape of Andrew Davis’s respectable thriller The Fugitive, also starring Tommy Lee Jones, is playing.  It occurs to me that The Hunted was probably intended to look and feel something like this film, with its clear characterizations (each one no more than a collection of signifiers) expanding into the minutes of screen time needed to anchor us in the sensibilities of our identification figures.  Yet, despite similarities of script and casting, The Hunted feels absolutely nothing like The Fugitive, for better or worse.  I’d say for the better.