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Testosterone’s a hell of a drug. It pumps through the filmography of Jody Hill, turning insecure men mad as they scramble to reaffirm their masculinity in a world that reveals how absurd their machismo really is. The director’s lifelong muse Danny McBride married a headstrong bluster with a gelatinous inner core as a martial arts instructor (the 2004 feature The Foot Fist Way), a has-been of major league baseball (TV’s Eastbound and Down), and a high school faculty member (their follow-up series Vice Principals). McBride takes a supporting role in The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, ceding the tempest-in-a-manly-teapot role to Josh Brolin for Hill’s latest big-screen outing, but the psychological profile is unchanged. All the rip-snorting, loogie-hocking, whiskey-slugging posturing still cloaks a small, fragile ego.
Brolin grows his No Country For Old Men moustache back out as Buck Ferguson, a hunter known far and wide (throughout North Carolina, at least) for his series of homemade videos in which he extols the virtues of hardiness and family values while picking off big game. While he’s liable to preen for the camera of his loyal assistant Don (McBride), creating a moment for the sake of the folks at home, Buck is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of guy. He likes the simple things: whiskey in a tin cup, wieners cooked over a fire, and as explained in the film’s most humorous monologue, the processed pleasures of American cheese squares. He comes from an increasingly antiquated school of manhood where John Wayne and Clint Eastwood serve as professors, their weather-beaten grimaces a brave front for the pain that all men must nobly carry.
Hill hacked out a space for himself in American cinema by challenging the word “nobly” in the preceding sentence, suggesting that emotionally stunted men know only how to react to inner turmoil like overgrown children. Buck couldn’t be more excited to take his son Jaden (Montana Jordan) on the boy’s very first outing, but as he grumbles to no one in particular, the weekend does not go at all how he had envisioned it. The generation gap makes things hard enough – Jaden would rather be talking on his cell phone to his new girlfriend or listening to his iPod than sitting in silence for hours on end, waiting for a deer to wander into their crosshairs – until the bombshell drops that Caroline (Carrie Coon), Jaden’s mother and Buck’s ex-wife, plans on marrying her boyfriend. Buck does not take this news well, and pins all his hopes of reconciliation with the family he still sees as his to the success of that weekend’s pursuit.
Hill establishes that though he may be successful and attentive, this new suitor is a fraction of the man Buck is when Jaden receives a high-pressure automatic machine gun for his birthday. In a clear contrast, Buck gifts his son the old rifle that his dad gave him for his first deer hunt, and mutters that “this ain’t a school shooting” when he sees the heavy artillery from Caroline’s new man. A North Carolina boy himself, Hill understands the quiet dignity of the hunt, sneaking in lines about the meditative state of lying in wait and how a true hunter honors his mark even in death. He doesn’t hold masculinity itself in contempt; there’s something beautiful in male camaraderie, and something respectable in the outmoded model of the strong, silent type. At the same time, he’s willing to consider Don as an alternate model of manhood, a fellow that knows himself and has gotten comfortable with who he is, cuckolding fetishes and all.
The men of Jody Hill’s films contain multitudes, even if they do so from under a perfectly transparent display case. The film is willing to allow Buck to be a faintly tragic character, and then a redemptive one, all while holding fast to his characterization as a thick-skulled man-child. Buck Ferguson doesn’t have the bombast of a Kenny Powers, placing the usual Hill method in a quieter, more naturalistic register.
It’s far from the funniest thing the writer-director has ever done, but he seems more interested here in elongating the partially comprehending self-awareness usually restrained to a single fleeting moment to a full feature length. The result is somewhat more subdued, closer to a sincerely felt character study with a dusting of doofus comedy than a doofus comedy concealing a sincerely felt character study. The beauty of the film is that Buck would spend the whole time yelling at the screen for them to get to the damn hunting already. Of course, Hill would be the first to remind us that the hunt is truly about communing with the target, about locking eyes with it and inhabiting its headspace. In this respect, he gets Buck right between the eyes.
- The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter is available on Netflix from 6 July
Source: The Guardian
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