Bright Lights Film Journal

Slash and Burn: Revisiting William Friedkin’s The Hunted (2003)

“Putting the pain back into violence is Friedkin’s real achievement in The Hunted, and indeed his unfashionable, irony-free approach helps explain why the film never found its audience in a decade where torture porn induced new depths of numbness in viewers.”

Upon its U.S. release in March 2003, The Hunted quickly emerged as an easy target that few critics were willing to defend. Directed by William Friedkin, whose industry standing plummeted after the initial double-whammy of The French Connection and The Exorcist, it’s a mainstream action thriller that plays out as a precise hybrid between 1993’s summer blockbuster The Fugitive and Rambo’s 1982 opening gambit First Blood. Tommy Lee Jones headlines as L. T. Bonham, a retired Special Operations instructor enlisted on an FBI manhunt for Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), a Special Forces assassin who’s been left with a nasty case of post-traumatic stress disorder after a hellish tour of Kosovo. Trained to function as a killing machine by Bonham himself, Hallam has failed to readjust to peacetime life, even sending his ex-teacher a string of tormented letters in search of help. When his correspondence goes unanswered, Hallam hides out in the forests of Oregon butchering deer hunters who impinge on his territory.

Little notice was taken when The Hunted failed to recoup its $55 million budget and stalled at a miserable 31 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Some reviews expressed regret that the film didn’t turn out better, given that it united the talents of an Oscar-winning director and two Oscar-winning lead actors. But in truth, the careers of Jones and Del Toro had always been uneven, while Friedkin had long reigned as the most maligned and scapegoated director of the New Hollywood generation. The Friedkin backlash began back in 1977, when his big-budget Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer tanked at the box office and was upheld as a harbinger of doom for producers ceding too much control to those post-classical movie brats (Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, De Palma) who shot to fame after the death of the studio system. People overlooked the fact that Sorcerer was a classic action thriller — full of precarious set pieces and a palpable sense of dread — and thereafter Friedkin began alternating between indefensible duds like Deal of the Century (1983) and The Guardian (1990) and more interestingly troubled genre fare like 1980’s nihilistic Al Pacino thriller Cruising (trashed for its perceived homophobia and misogyny), 1985’s flamboyantly Miami Vice-style cops-and-robbers melodrama To Live and Die in L.A., and the creepy capital-punishment docudrama Rampage (which was made in 1987 but sat on the shelf until 1992).

The Hunted is one of Friedkin’s most uneasy genre exercises, a production-line spectacle whose mechanics betray a surprising precision. It clocks in at barely 90 minutes, and while this sense of truncation gives the film a certain jagged momentum, it’s also the visible remnant of a behind-the-scenes rush job. Originally conceived as the prequel to a film that was later made with an entirely different cast and crew (the dire Mark Wahlberg vehicle Shooter), The Hunted was shot at breakneck speed to be finished before a predicted Screen Actors Guild strike that never happened. Like Rampage it lingered awhile in distribution limbo, and the final cut still bears signs of a botched editing process. There’s virtually no story here, let alone backstory. Time and space are fractured, dialogue consists of base exposition, and any pretense at psychological probing boils down to a muffled attack on the filicidal failure of patriarchy (Hallam’s killing spree is explained away as messy juvenile mutiny against his neglectful mentor, though a few undeveloped mentions of animal rights activism suggest there was once another angle to his behavior). Adding to the ramshackle structure are a few secondary characters who show up randomly and vanish without explanation, like Hallam’s nondescript would-be love interest (played by Leslie Stefanson) and the sub-Ashley Judd FBI agent played by Connie Nielsen.

Under such conditions, Friedkin needs two strong leads like a lifeboat, and neither Jones nor Del Toro disappoint. This wasn’t the first time Jones played a deadpan, world-weary lawman on the trail of a dangerous fugitive — in fact it wasn’t the fifth time — but Bonham nevertheless occupies a vivid intertextual relationship with the string of FBI agents, sheriffs, and Texas Rangers he’s played in films ranging from The Fugitive to No Country for Old Men and even TV’s Lonesome Dove. Jones was 56 in The Hunted, and he looks at least that age; upon the film’s release, there were critical sniggers at the spectacle of a 56-year-old man indulging in the action heroics of fistfights, high-speed foot chases, and close brushes with whitewater rapids. Yet he uses his age and physique to layer Bonham with shades of vulnerability that ring true, particularly in those combat scenes where he comes off as resourceful but not infallible. He looks credibly scared of physical pain, credibly hurt when Hallam slices him with a stone blade; even though we’re watching a Hollywood action narrative, we’re never quite sure he’ll make it out alive. Nor does the fact that Bonham suffers from vertigo and vomits when he steps off a helicopter make him a wimp. On the contrary, it’s his very wrestle with fear, his awareness of mortality and inability to provide Hallam with meaningful answers to his filial questions that endow him with a paradoxical integrity. The fear etched into Jones’ face also helps us draw a poignant through-line from the cocksure single-mindedness of The Fugitive‘s Samuel Gerard to No Country‘s Ed Tom Bell. He’s showing us how a man’s illusion of agency can curdle over time into impotence, just like a dream of his father carrying a horn of fire through a godless landscape.

Del Toro is one of those actors who rarely turn in a weak performance regardless of the film’s quality, and here he seems determined to overcome a complete lack of written characterization with brute force. Leave that glamorous six-pack shit to Statham, Wahlberg, Butler et al — Del Toro is too busy being a badass to be a poser as well. He doesn’t have ground-zero body fat, but that only adds to his hulking power, helping him come off like the UFC fighter of Hollywood action villains. He seems to understand that a true killing machine will fight with his delts, latts and glutes as much as his hands and feet, and that makes for one of those exciting cases where a dramatic actor — perhaps in response to not being trained into action roles — ends up fighting onscreen with his whole body (as Matt Damon did in the Bourne trilogy). There are moments where his body language is effectively choppy and lumbering, and others where he displays a natural grace, like the flashback training scene where he practices killing a fellow student with six knife strokes to vital arteries. He also evokes memories of Jon Voight’s Manny in that great existential action flick Runaway Train when, wounded and desperate, he throws a puddle of his own spilled blood into the eyes of his opponent; if Wahlberg or Statham tried that, it would feel like standard Hollywood cheese, but Del Toro manages to make it a thrillingly primal gesture.

The Hunted exists largely for these kinds of gestures. For all his lack of narrative complexity or finesse, Friedkin has always understood the visceral energy that’s unleashed when an action scene is filmed in terms of utility. A foot chase through the streets of Portland steals from both the famous elevated train chase in The French Connection (which, it’s worth remembering in the age of CGI pyrotechnics, was shot without benefit of special effects, dolly tracks, or scripted stuntwork) and the chaotic wrong-lane freeway chase in To Live and Die in L.A., but it nicely reiterates his comfort with the chase format.

More impressive is the aforementioned closing duel by a forest waterfall, where Jones and Del Toro engage in wolverine-style Filipino Martial Arts combat with knives carved out of stone and scrap metal. Because of the nature of their work, these men need to display advanced combat skills and handle weaponry with economic precision. What they don’t need is to be choreographed like they’re in a Chinese ballet, so it’s a relief when Friedkin bypasses Matrix/John Woo-style aestheticization to create a cinematic violence unnervingly close to the real thing — quick, messy, and painful. Putting the pain back into violence is Friedkin’s real achievement in The Hunted, and indeed his unfashionable, irony-free approach helps explain why the film never found its audience in a decade where torture porn induced new depths of numbness in viewers (who learned to watch eyeballs being blowtorched without batting their own eyelids). Perhaps the only mainstream action scene of the ’00s to rival The Hunted‘s knife-fight for convincing messiness and sheer physicality was Viggo Mortensen’s nude bathhouse battle in Eastern Promises (2007). That was obviously a better, deeper film all round, but Cronenberg’s cinema of the flesh still finds unexpected echoes in The Hunted — a film where the flick of a knife sounds horrifying, wounds flow just the right shade of red, and the suspension of disbelief that governs Hollywood action cinema is unwittingly disrupted by the taboo frailty of the aging male body.

In this light, the film’s central failure to articulate the resonance of its shadowy father-son duality is less critical than it perhaps should be. It’s true Friedkin offers little commentary on the ethical dilemma of a military protocol in which men are brainwashed into conscience-free terminators, or the catastrophic failure of institutional patriarchy to accommodate their reversion to civility. Instead he relies first on the use of Johnny Cash’s “Highway 61 Revisited” cover demanding that Abraham “kill me a son” to set the portentous tone, and then on the moral misgivings of Tommy Lee Jones’ great stone face to fill in the blanks. Yet what fails as straight narrative translates nicely into the kind of crude cinematic shorthand that has always given Friedkin’s films life: The Hunted is as bracing, primitive, and downright fleshy an action film as you’re ever likely to see come out of Hollywood.