The Hunted (2003) is what happens when you take a generic action thriller and put it in the hands of a master filmmaker like William Friedkin. While it certainly doesn’t belong among the top tier of his films, the director takes a standard cat and mouse chase movie and strips it down to its most basic elements. He does something quite intriguing with this genre movie by downplaying the forgettable dialogue and cliché plotting in favor of visual storytelling.
After receiving a medal for assassinating a Serbian military commander in Kosovo, United States Army Sergeant First Class Aaron Hallam (Benicio del Toro) is unable to forget the horrors he witnessed while on his covert combat mission. He saw men, women and children massacred wholesale by Serbian soldiers and Friedkin immerses us in the chaos and madness of Albanian villagers being systematically decimated by utilizing horror genre tropes. He wisely keeps the dialogue to a minimum for the first nine minutes of the movie in favor of letting nightmarish visuals do all the heavy lifting.
When he’s not rescuing a wounded wolf from dumbass hunters in the wilderness of British Columbia, L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) is an expert in military survival and combat training. The FBI comes calling because they need his wilderness savvy to track Hallam who has gone rogue since returning home and become the bogeyman of forests in Oregon, gutting two deer hunters with his combat knife. Bonham taught Hallam everything he knows and the FBI uses his familiarity with his former student to track him down. Aiding him in this endeavor is Assistant Special Agent in Charge Abby Durrell (Connie Nielson wasted in a largely forgettable role). Their initial confrontation is not just an exciting battle of wills but also of physicality as the student attempts to school his mentor. It becomes obvious that conventional law enforcement methods will not be good enough to catch and stop Hallam so Bonham goes it alone and Friedkin sets up the inevitable confrontation between the two men.
Benicio del Toro spends most of The Hunted looking haunted, opting to downplay his madness by conveying it in his eyes, which is good because the dialogue he is given is cliché and forgettable. While watching The Hunted I was reminded of that great line of dialogue that John Malkovich’s rogue government operative turned assassin says In the Line of Fire (1993), “And now they want to destroy me because we can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside now can we?” This certainly applies to Hallam as well who must be contained by his government handlers once he’s gone off the reservation as it were.
Friedkin and Del Toro do their best to try and humanize Hallam. He’s not a monstrous killing machine but a very damaged individual that has been so messed up by what he’s seen and done for his country. He imagines conspiracies around every corner thanks to all the covert work he’s done and can no longer switch it off. He’s become permanently stuck in killer mode. To this end, Friedkin shows him trying to reconnect with loved ones but he’s clearly passed the point of no return and not even appeals from his former mentor will persuade him from his path.
While Del Toro gets to play the spooky antagonist, Jones brings his trademark no-nonsense charisma to the role. It is a real treat to see a seasoned pro like him work his understated magic on a genre movie. I like that Friedkin shows Bonham combing through the forest, analyzing marks on the ground and on trees much like a police officer would scrutinize a crime scene. He is able to use his surroundings to find Hallam.
I also like how Bonham’s body language changes once he’s out of the wilderness – an environment he feels most comfortable in – and in the city. As he talks to Durrell in her office, Bonham anxiously fidgets with his hands, looking ill at ease and this is also reflected in his posture. He never says to Durrell that he feels uncomfortable – it is all conveyed visually. I also like that at certain moments when Bonham is pursuing Hallam we see fear on his face. He’s not just some invulnerable hero but someone prone to fear just like anyone else and that’s because he knows what Hallam is capable of because he trained him.
Visually, Friedkin keeps things interesting with a nicely orchestrated extended chase through the streets of Portland that starts in cars and ends on a cable car. It demonstrates Hallam’s uncanny ability to be elusive and blend into any environment as well as Bonham’s skill as a tracker, studying tiny details that most ignore in order to pursue him. This leads to the climactic battle and once again Friedkin dispenses with dialogue in favor of letting the visuals tell the story along with the help of two incredibly skilled actors that don’t need to rely on words but rather body language to express themselves.
In the late 1980s, William Friedkin read a few books about wilderness survival by and became friends with professional tracker Tom Brown Jr. who trained Special Forces and SEAL teams to survive harsh environments and kill without actually having killed anyone himself. At the time, Brown “had tremendous guilt about who was being killed and went through a tremendous guilt trip,” the filmmaker said in an interview. Friedkin found Brown so interesting that he wanted to make a film about him but felt that it would probably be a documentary. He actually started writing a screenplay but never felt it worked and shelved it.
Several years later, Friedkin read David and Peter Griffiths’ screenplay about a trained Delta Force-type assassin that becomes a serial killer. The director met with them and then had them meet Brown. They worked on a new draft and then Friedkin brought in another screenwriter to work with Brown. The director was interested in exploring a teacher-student relationship that would have “the seeds of an exciting conflict – especially if the pupil has been driven mad by the number of killings he had to do, and the teacher suffers from strong feelings of guilt because he instructs others to kill, even though he’s never killed anyone himself.”
Friedkin brought in Brown to train Benicio del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones and served a consultant on the movie. During the production he worked with the actors for two hours a day, three to four days a week, teaching them how to survive in the wilderness. Brown found that Jones didn’t need much training because he was already a hunter and “good in the outdoors,” while Del Toro was less experienced but a fast learner. Brown also brought in a knife specialist and another one in Sayoc Kali martial arts for an average of two hours a day, five days a week. Del Toro strove for authenticity with the scenes depicting hand-to-hand combat. “We wanted to keep it as real as possible, and although an actual fight between two guys with extraordinary knife skills could easily be over in seconds, ours is very real in terms of how we block and how we react.”
With only seven days left of principal photography, Del Toro was injured while filming a fight scene with Jones. The actor broke a bone and dislocated seven others, which required surgery. Filming stopped for seven months. Friedkin took that time to look at the movie and find ways to improve it, which included asking Johnny Cash to write a song for it.
The Hunted received mostly mixed to negative reviews. In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “The stripped-down narrative is almost an apology for the ludicrous story – but it’s just not enough of one.” Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a “C” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “There’d be more inclination to ponder the deeper psychological themes implied in this cat-and-mouse hunt if the movie weren’t so obviously turned on by the fetishism of the story.” The Los Angeles Times’ Manohla Dargis wrote, “The images of L.T. playing ‘wolf whisperer’ and Aaron slithering through the forest are absurd, but the director’s mad-hatter logic never wavers. You believe because Friedkin believes, at least until you realize none of it makes a bit of sense.” USA Today gave the movie one out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “You keep waiting for there to be more, but there never is – other than the fact that it all gets gorier and uglier.” Rolling Stone gave it two out of four stars and Peter Travers wrote, “William Friedkin directs the knife fights with French Connection relish, but the film is just a Rambo rehash.” Roger Ebert, however, gave the movie three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “What makes the movie fresh is that it doesn’t stand back and regard its pursuit as an exercise, but stays very close to the characters and focuses on the actual physical reality of their experience.”
Ultimately, Bonham has to live with the guilt and regret that if he had read Hallam’s letters to him early on all of this bloodshed might’ve been avoided. This realization gives The Hunted an unexpectedly somber not to end on thereby defying the usual triumphant vibe that most thrillers of this ilk go out on by the end credits. This may explain why it wasn’t a commercial success, failing to make back its modest $55 budget. While it remains one of Friedkin’s minor works, it is nonetheless an entertaining and engaging effort.
Scott B. “An Interview with William Friedkin.” IGN. March 11, 2003.