On the Trail of the Assassin

William Friedkin’s The Hunted is cold and remote—just like the director.

Teacher and pupil meet again under different circumstances

Watching the brutally exciting and sometimes brutally inept new thriller The Hunted (Paramount), I began to see the weaknesses of the director, William Friedkin, in a more forgiving light: Maybe he’s not the proficient-but-cold SOB that I took him to be after The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), and the string of dyspeptic flops that began with Sorceror (1977). Maybe as a storyteller he’s just painfully lacking in social graces, like the clammy guy in high school who responds to “How’s it goin’?” with a suspicious glare. Maybe, given his graceless personality, this savagely compelling but emotionally truncated melodrama is something of an achievement—a nearly personal work.

The movie is intended as a primal tale of filicide, and by rights it should be an emotional workout. It opens with Johnny Cash reciting a verse of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61” about God ordering Abraham to “kill me a son,” then plunges into the inferno of Kosovo, where a youngish military assassin, Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), witnesses the massacre of scores of Albanian civilians. After wriggling through drains and crouching in the deep shadows, he carves up the Serbian commander with a shade too much fervor. A year later, Hallam is hiding out in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and butchering anyone with the bad sense to come after him. (And I mean butchering—he quarters them and dresses the meat.) Enter Tommy Lee Jones as L.T. Bonham, Hallam’s former mentor in the dark art of wartime killing, who is called in by the FBI to track his prodigal son. In the depths of his crisis, Hallam had tried to reach out to L.T. in a series of anguished missives; but L.T., for some reason, couldn’t bring himself to reach back. As someone who teaches people to kill but has never killed himself, L.T. can speak of severing arteries and breaking necks in the abstract. He doesn’t have to follow his pupils into hell.

Now L.T. must track Hallam, and as he does, the blackened and camouflaged Hallam tracks his tracker. Once the two confront each other, early in the picture (“Hey, L.T.”), what’s left is a series of violent struggles, chases, more chases, more violent struggles, another chase or two, and a protracted final chase and struggle—all of it set against a backdrop of urban (Portland, Ore.) jungle or verdant Pacific Northwest wilderness. The monotony is somewhat offset by the elemental intensity: No one else—not the cops, not the FBI, not the military—can bring this renegade assassin down. Hallam is like L.T.’s Frankenstein’s monster, the creature that he made and only he can destroy.

The first thing you’ll notice about The Hunted is that many scenes are clipped brusquely short, the filmmaking equivalent of grunting and walking away in mid-sentence. Almost every sequence is a non-sequitur: Few directors of Friedkin’s stature are as routinely negligent about transitions—or just giving an audience its bearings. At the time of The French Connection, critics took his chill, abrasive, rhythmless style to be deliberate—fashionably existential, in fact. (The French adore Friedkin and vice versa.) Is Friedkin’s syntax the upshot of philosophy or indifference? My guess is that it’s indifference masking itself as philosophy. Friedkin has no bedside manner—no evident empathy for his characters, no feeling of responsibility toward his audience, and no interest in lingering once he has made his dramatic point.

The beauty part of this is that he can do pulp without the Hollywood sanctimoniousness that often comes with pulp these days. He has a flair for ruthless, uninflected action; and because nothing (i.e., no human element) distracts him from his purpose, he can bash out a chase scene better than almost anyone. Visually, The Hunted is nowhere near as varied as Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, but it’s far less compromised by sentimentality and pandering. It’s a terrible movie in some ways, but I found its bluntness refreshing; I was held by the damn thing.

It helps that this is the first thriller in ages that doesn’t feel as if it’s set inside a computer. The fights between Jones and Del Toro are hand-to-hand, sometimes with knives forged from stone, and they aren’t storyboarded or choreographed to the point of airlessness. The two actors don’t look like dancers or Peking Opera graduates, but like soldiers trained in martial arts and weaponry, mechanically going through the motions but exquisitely tuned in to each other’s countermoves. Their punches aren’t amplified—the thud of flesh on flesh sounds authentic, and so do their warriors’ grunts. I’ve seen a lot of fighting in movies in the last few years, but this seemed like the first real fighting in ages.

The physicality of The Hunted is deeply stirring: It connects the characters as it divides them. In the film’s best sequence, a flashback, Jones’ L.T. demonstrates how to kill a man in brisk, eerily clinical tones: “Sever all the connective tissue … twist the arm and slice through the femoral artery. … Don’t worry about his arm, the only thing his arm can do is block the lung puncture. …” Then he taps the knife against a student’s body while counting off the points of entry that inevitably lead to death: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.”

After last summer’s Men in Black 2, in which Jones’ face looked crumpled and his body slack, it’s great to see the actor in his element: deadpan but wiry and alert, with a touch of affecting helplessness. His L.T. is confused by his feelings toward Hallam, and in scenes with Connie Nielsen (the tall, gorgeous Dane is not the most convincing FBI agent), Jones embodies the tragedy of a father who didn’t take responsibility for his son until it was too late. His inarticulateness seems in synch with Friedkin’s: If the movie had gone further in exploring L.T.’s unwillingness to do anything in the face of Hallam’s plaintive letters, this might have been a major performance.

Del Toro, on the other hand, is a shade remote, and his deep voice sounds oddly muffled, as if his mike fell into his overcoat pocket. I’m not sure why the performance doesn’t take hold—maybe because he’s trying to play both a man and an out-of-control machine, and he doesn’t have dialogue that would make the disjunction plain. (For a long time the audience thinks he might be a crazed animal-rights activist.) The main problem, I think, is that he doesn’t mirror Jones. As an actor, Del Toro is stylized and hammily cryptic, sometimes to the point of Brando-esque camp, whereas Jones makes a show of macho dryness. His plainspoken L.T. would see in Del Toro’s Hallam not a protégé gone insane but a slightly effete weirdo.

The veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel has given The Hunted an amazing palette of greens: You scan the dewy leaves, the lichen, and the moss for signs of the camouflaged Hallam—or for one of his lethal traps. In one shot, Hallam is barely visible through a waterfall like a curtain. The movie has all the elements of a primal saga except the most important: a director unafraid of the emotional maelstrom. Whenever Friedkin needs to go deeper, he just goes bloodier, and an air of pointlessness settles over the whole enterprise. You can start your movie with Johnny Cash reciting the story of Abraham and Isaac, but at a certain point you have to pick biblical or existential—not both.