“The Hunted” (2003) is presented as a version of the Abraham story in the Old Testament, but is more like Rambo versus Rambo with a bit of McGyver. The rehabilitation of nature in the film as innocent and beautiful gripped me at once since the scenery is all familiar to me. Silver Falls is a park full of waterfalls one can walk behind and my family camped and picnicked there many times. Portland, of course, is where I grew up.
The opening, which is meant to justify the behavior of the younger “Rambo,” played by Benecio del Toro, is a gruesome hellish version of Kosovo in which the world is on fire, civilians are gunned to death, and then an innocent little girl walks through the bodies, rescuing a stuffed animal. There are three versions of this innocent little girl: this one, one on what seems to be a train, and the daughter of a girl friend.
The girl friend is one of two women built like storks with pretty faces and chin-length hair. The other one is on the side of the military. One shelters and saves Benicio and the other tries to kill him. (Friedkin had three two-year marriages to film industry women and then one that persists, a marriage to Sherry Lansing. His mother, whom he describes as a saint, was an Operating Room nurse.)
One is probably well-justified in finding the forces of the movie in the director’s life. (He’s 81.) Friedkin’s family, Jewish, escaped persecution in Ukraine. Some biographers say he was ambivalent about his father, a lovable underachiever. So this is not a movie so much about the father, Abraham, and his dilemma, as it is the son’s story. And it is about impossibly strong and resourceful men in a situation of deep paranoia —except that they are really trying to kill Benicio and the instrument of death is his “father/teacher” played by Tommy Lee Jones. The struggle between two men, very much alike, produced by the world horror of war that begs the question of the power of God, is the core of the film.
War in “Kosovo” begins the story. Then we go to Silver Falls where Benicio is hiding out in the way that old Steve Solovich (see 12/28/04 post on this blog), various Vietnam survivors, and a few wanted criminals have done. Parallel, Tommy Lee Jones appears to have a cabin in BC and saves a white wolf from a nasty wire snare. This establishes his creds as a good man, though his job is to kill Benicio who has such an extreme case of PTSD that he has to be rubbed out.
He finds Benicio with no trouble and there is a struggle between the two men, equally matched and beautifully choreographed, ended by the arrival of “god” or the equivalent coalition of federal agents: CIA, FBI, etc. Naturally Benicio escapes, goes to the girl friend’s house in NW Portland, not far from where Ursula leGuin lives. (That's not a plot point -- she's not in the film.) Now we have a choreographed car chase, lots of crashing. The narrow, steep streets of NW make an excellent labyrinth.
Next he enters an underground industrial world worthy of the Brit trope of coal mines but evidently an excavation for a sewage system — this symbolism isn’t in the Bible, but it echoes D.H. Lawrence and “Lord of the Rings.” Come to think of this context, the wrestling of the two men — and let’s face it, that near-homosexual love/hate struggle at Silver Falls is much like the infamous 1969 scene in “Women in Love” where Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle naked on the hearth — and the underground mud brings to mind the troglodytes rolling out of the ditch walls in “Lord of the Rings”. H.G. Wells exploited these ideas — that underground is bestial and filthy while going up high is a kind exaltation.
After an exciting episode on Portland’s light rail — the traditional running-down-the hurtling-train roof — Benicio takes to the sky by climbing a bridge. It’s not the Golden Gate, but good enough. He jumps and washes up at the rapids and waterfalls of Oregon City which also is full of major industrial debris because the rushing water was once what powered factories there. He is able to transform steel straps into the symbolic knife of Abraham while Tommy Lee is busy flint knapping a more primitive stone version of the same shape. Can the old man still "take" the son?
This is a spoiler: Tommy Lee does not turn aside to kill a ram. He kills his “son.” This is a modern cynical version of the story. Film students and philosophers will have a fine time unraveling it all. Most people, esp. kids, will simply enjoy the action, which is certainly well-done as is the acting of the two opponents, equally fierce and implacable. Then there are the sophisticated reviewers, who found it just another retelling of the familiar. Beyond that are those who value myth and much deeper social forces, like the hellishness of the industrial, the constant fascistic pressure of Homeland Security types, and the Antaeus redemption of Mother Earth.
From Wikipedia: “The technical adviser for the film was Tom Brown, Jr., an American outdoorsman and wilderness survival expert. The story is partially inspired by a real-life incident involving Brown, who was asked to track down a former pupil and Special Forces sergeant who had evaded capture by authorities. This story is told in Tom's book, Case Files Of The Tracker.”
“The unusually realistic, brutal hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting in the film featured Filipino Martial Arts. Thomas Kier and Rafael Kayanan of Sayoc Kali were brought in by Benicio del Toro. They were credited as knife fight choreographers for the film.”
I loved seeing familiar places used this way, looking deeply into what is the ordinary for me, summoning up incidents from my family past, suggesting that they aren’t just local and personal but also the material of the arts, transformed by a vision. This is not a film for the ages, but I think that for an action/horror movie it will age well. Who among us does not feel a little hunted now and then — and hope for power?