‘The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter’ SXSW Review: Deer God, more like this please

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People tend to see Jody Hill as a cynic and an archivist of the modern fly-over asshole. His greatest contribution to modern cinema, 2009’s Observe and Report, is a bitter and fucked up Taxi Driver riff set in a small city’s mall, where a mall cop gradually begins to lose control of his grip on reality. It’s funny as hell, but literally embodies the American abyss in a way that’s core-shaking, as long as you’re willing to acknowledge it. His contributions to television, the HBO masterpieces Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals, contain within them a similar ethos, though altered for longform storytelling.

It would be easy to assume that his new film, a Netflix original film entitled The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, would be more of the same, and people are reading it in the same way (I’ve already seen people refer to its characters as “scumbags”). But Whitetail Deer Hunter is anything but typical Jody Hill beyond the setting — the Appalachian Mountains outside of beautiful Asheville, North Carolina — and resembles a feature-length episode of King of the Hill more than anything that’s come before it. This is, of course, a good thing, and a great departure for the director. It will be his most controversial work, for sure, but hopefully people will see how great it is.

Whitetail Deer Hunter tells the story of Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin), a charming and goofy master hunter who’s made a career out of traveling to exotic locales, shooting fauna of all types, and documenting his pursuits with Don (Danny McBride), his trusted cameraman. They sell tapes of his hunts at conventions and through the internet, and he’s got, by all accounts, a pretty damn great life. Well, sort of. He’s still reeling from his divorce, and his wife (Carrie Coon) has shacked up with a new man (Scoot McNairy), who seems to be the kind of dweebish loser that Buck doesn’t want around his 12-year-old son Jaden (Montana Jackson).

He decides that it’s time for Jaden to go on his first hunt, like he did with his own father, and wants it to be less of a rite of masculine passage than an attempt for the two of them to connect over something. The kid’s not that into it at first, distracted by his phone and the brand new AR-15 his mom’s boyfriend bought him, but eventually they spot a massive buck, which Buck dubs a “nontypical.” This piques the boy’s interest, and the hunt is on in earnest. Rest assured, though, things don’t go as planned, and the relationships between all three of the hunters will be tested over their time in the mountains.

So much of this plot sounds inherently familiar to anybody who’s been to the movies in the last 30 years, but Hill never gets into easy cliche. Jaden isn’t a brat; he’s a good-natured and charming kid struggling with his parents’ divorce, his sixth-grade girlfriend (who he is on the phone with all of the time) and the fact that he got held back a year in school. Buck is really damaged and attempts to hide his vulnerability from the rest of the group, but it’s easy to see his pain through his omnipresent smile. His family is getting further and further away from him every day, and he’s realized at that point how badly he’s fucked himself over (Brolin was really a gamble for this part, but he’s able to exude warmth in a way I didn’t think him capable of).

And Don? Don’s looking to get out of the game, and retire back to his girlfriend’s family farm to watch to take it easy for the rest of his life. He knows this’ll emotionally cripple Buck, and shatter what little normalcy that he has left, but it’s what he’s got to do. So all these factors eventually come to a head, and with it comes the kind of slapstick chaos that Hill is so adept at crafting. The one-liners are there (Jackson and McBride are given the dealer’s choice of dialogue, and there are some gags in here that caused my audience to break out in hoots and hollers like a tent revival), the pathos are there, and Hill, instead of adding his normal cynicism, chooses to add a bunch of tenderness to the proceedings. This is a wildly big-hearted work by Hill, who’s empathy has always been another defining characteristic but never used by him in this fashion.

The film’s humor is mostly reminiscent of something like National Lampoon’s Vacation (echoed in a scene in which the three share some whiskey at their campsite) more so than Without a Paddle or whatever garbage outdoors film you want to point at when you hear “hunting trip” and comedy, but there are moments where it tilts into Hill raunch (Don’s girlfriend has some interesting kinks), and they feel a little more out of place here than they would in any of his other works. Also, and perhaps obviously, this film’s release comes at a period in which gun control is a source of major national debate, and I don’t think there’s a pro-gun side to this movie — Jaden’s AR-15 is a recurring joke at which Buck constantly scowls at — but I can see that making certain people uncomfortable.

I think The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter will play dramatically different depending on what part of the country you live in. If you life in Appalachia, you’ll be able to enjoy this a little more fully than, say, someone in New York, and that’s not to say that the movie is rustic or belonging to “real America” or that you’re an elitist if you’re from there. It’s just that it will play more of a satire of rural masculinity and less as the earnest comedy that I’m sure certain people will latch on to down below the Mason-Dixon. The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter will not be for everyone, but it’s an excellent little film that deeply moved me (as a Tar Heel born and bred myself), and I’m really excited for you to see it.

‘The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter’ is out July 6. Follow Nick Johnston on his adventures at SXSW 2018 @onlysaysficus. Featured photo credit: Merrick Morton, Netflix. All rights reserved.