Published March 14, 2003
The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is generally taken to be a parable about faith. Abraham, ordered by God to sacrifice his own son, shows that he is prepared to do it and then is told that he may substitute a ram instead. William Friedkin’s preposterous The Hunted, begins with Johnny Cash’s version of Bob Dylan’s version of Abraham and Isaac, in “Highway 61 Revisited,” in order to make — well, some different point. If you figure out what it is, let me know.
At a simplistic level, the analogies are easy. Abraham is ace tracker and woodsman L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) who, without being a soldier himself, has trained all the U.S. Army’s top special forces killers in the arts of survival. Now his Isaac, a star pupil called Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), has flipped out and is murdering deer hunters and disemboweling them “in a ritualistic fashon” in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Naturally only L.T., now “working for the wildlife fund” in British Columbia, can track him down and bring him in.
It’s not exactly what you’d call a parallel situation to the one in the Bible is it? For one thing, we know from the beginning that this Abraham, unlike his biblical prototype, is not going to be let off the hook. He must draw his homemade knife across the throat of his surrogate son if only because he is the only one who can. Faith doesn’t come into it. L.T. doesn’t even seem particularly fond of his Isaac, and he is certainly not grief-stricken at his loss.
So what is the point of the Old Testament trappings? It doesn’t help, either, that the movie ends with Cash’s take on the Apocalypse of the New Testament, “The Man Comes Around.” One is driven back on the conclusion that all this biblical bracketing is just portentous nonsense. Nor does the nonsense end there. It is hardly surprising that Friedkin’s larger purposes are obscure when even the simplest questions of plot and thematic unity are left unanswered.
For instance, Abby Durrell (Connie Nielsen), the pretty FBI agent in charge of the case, seems to have been put in as a love interest for L.T., but nothing comes of it. And nothing comes of the fact that nothing comes of it. The theme of the tracker in the city is introduced when L.T. looks out on the streets of Portland and announces: “It’s a wilderness.” But when he has to follow Hallam around the city he demonstrates no streetcraft to match his woodcraft in the forest. He just seems to know where to go. So they put him — and his quarry — back in the forest.
To me the most annoying thing about the movie is that Friedkin apparently takes it for granted that, as most of Hollywood these days probably believes, there is no essential difference between a good soldier and the psycho killer-cannibal that Hallam has become. It’s easy to train a killer, L.T. explains, “the difficult part is learning how to turn it off.” Is it really? Even a dog can be trained to attack only whom you tell him to attack but not, it seems, the American G.I. Once he has tasted blood, he will go on killing for any reason that comes to hand.
In Hallam’s case it is that by killing the hunters he is somehow sticking up for the six million chickens that he says will perish in slaughterhouses this year. In fact, it must be many more millions than that, but the figure is, shall we say, resonant. Let us hope that the chickens are suitably thankful for his support. But of course Friedkin doesn’t care about them. They just provide a superficially plausible motivation for this latest, military-survivalist version of that great figure of romance for our times, the psycho serial killer.
Well, why not chickens as well as sexual perversion? Actually, you may be able to think of several reasons why not, at least if you want a watchable movie. Nor does Friedkin take any trouble to explain by what highly interesting processes Hallam’s post traumatic stress disorder as a result of a secret mission to Kosovo in 1999 should have turned him into the Champion of the Chickens. He just trusts to luck, I guess, that putting together military training and some bloody military experience will sufficiently account for this gallinaceous Hannibal Lecter, who lacks, alack, the highly sophisticated tastes and vocabulary of his prototype.
Psycho killers like Lecter are, I know, thought to be their own justification these days, so many viewers will find that the more offensive absurdities are physical ones. Mr Jones is now in his mid-fifties and has actually played older men in some of his recent films. To see him chasing after the much younger Mr Del Toro and matching his feats of athleticism and endurance at every turn — including a priceless scene in which he, Tommy Lee, runs down and leaps aboard a commuter train — is a laugh, and by no means the only one afforded by this earnestly ridiculous movie.
For me the most amusing moment comes when Bonham predictably abandons the spirit of cooperation with the police and the FBI and takes to the wilds on his own after Hallam. As they are both dropped, by convoluted means too tedious to go into, weaponless in a trackless forest, Friedkin cross-cuts between the two men making their impromptu knives — Bonham’s out of flint, Hallam’s from a steel spring at a makeshift forge — all as if it were being done in real time, that is about five minutes’ worth, before the chase resumes. But then if he’d wanted to make it look real, I don’t suppose he would have started with Abraham and Isaac or ended with the Apocalypse.