Whatever else this year brings, my vote for best grunting in a movie already belongs to Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, whose guttural vocalizations in William Friedkin's "The Hunted" are some of the unexpected pleasures in this entertainingly nutty thriller. As hunter and prey, Jones and Del Toro employ a virtual orchestra of throaty growls and deep-belly rumbles. Some of the noises may be more closely associated with gastronomic distress, while others sound closer to the sort of earth-quaking bellowing not heard since Bart the Bear rampaged through "The Edge." This is not a movie for the faint of voice, though it may be appropriate for the hard of hearing.
The reasons for all this howling and hullabaloo have something to do with Kosovo, where the story opens, and perhaps the Old Testament, which is cited in the film's signature song, "Highway 61 Revisited." (Spoken and sung by Johnny Cash in a thunderous roar, the Bob Dylan 1960s anthem here sounds like a warning of looming apocalypse.) First there was Abraham and Isaac; sometime later there was L.T. Bonham (Jones) and Aaron Hallam (Del Toro). A tracker now working for a wildlife organization in remote British Columbia, L.T. once trained soldiers like Aaron for secret-ops duty in the U.S. military. As he explains to an FBI agent (Connie Nielsen) investigating the murder of some hunters, "I trained him to survive, I trained him to kill."
Haunted by Kosovo, where he'd been eyewitness to genocide, Aaron has gone both AWOL and bonkers. Now running amok in Oregon's Cascade mountains, his face smeared with camouflage mud and armed with only a knife (serrated on one side, with a convenient "filet" blade on the other), Aaron appears to be taking the anti-vivisectionist movement's mission to lethal extremes. In one tense scene, he ambushes two hunters who have been tracking elk with powerful scope rifles. His words spookily echoing through the forest primeval, he slips between trees, part-"X-Files" wood spirit, part-PETA avenger. He chastens the hunters for their irreverent killing ways (he sensibly asks why they need all that heavy artillery), before swooping down and butchering them like deer.
Aaron, transformed into a barbarian so that he can fight barbarism, has returned home but not to his civilized self. He's crossed over to the wild side and it doesn't look like he's coming back, a metamorphosis that Del Toro, with his cat grace and faraway stare, makes believable. The tension between our civilized and primitive selves is familiar stuff, the makings of countless westerns, war movies and crime stories. It's well-trampled ground, but because it's one of those big human subjects that translates well into big movie action, it's also the sort of material that filmmakers never tire of revisiting. For a director like Friedkin, who favors action over introspection and can wrest tension just from the image of a man looking into a camera, it can be manna from heaven, as it was in his underrated thriller "To Live and Die in L.A."
The problem with "The Hunted" isn't the familiarity of its core conflict, but that too much else in the film, including most of the dialogue (the screenplay is credited to David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths and Art Monterastelli), comes from the generic action manual. Once again, Jones, with his customary steeliness, spends most of a movie chasing down yet another ambiguous antihero and, like many an unfortunate movie tough guy, is forced to make flirty banter with the only woman character with a sizable role, a law enforcement agent who looks like a former model. Nielsen (who really is a former model) made a serviceable Roman queen in "Gladiator" and a persuasive ice queen in "One Hour Photo," but it's embarrassing to watch her try to hold her own in a movie that has as much interest in women as a Robert Bly drum circle.
. "The Hunted" is about men -- primitive, killing, grunting men -- or more precisely, it's about the directors who like to make movies about these men. I haven't a clue what the film's politics, sexual or global, are supposed to be, and if there's a moral about men and murder, it's gone missing amid the fast cutting. What keeps you watching isn't the story or the actors, none of whom are at the top of their form, but the relentlessness of Friedkin's vision. The film has great forward thrust -- Friedkin's a full-throttle guy -- and the director knows where to put the camera. He's the hook and the bait, as are his patented eccentricities. 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.
MPAA rating: R, for strong bloody violence and some language.
Times guidelines: You'll never want to carve the Thanksgiving turkey again.
Tommy Lee Jones...L.T. Bonham
Benicio Del Toro...Aaron Hallam
Connie Nielsen...Abby Durrell
John Finn...Ted Chenoweth
Paramount Pictures presents in association with Lakeshore Entertainment a Ricardo Mestres/Alphaville production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director William Friedkin. Writers David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, Art Monterastelli. Producers Ricardo Mestres, James Jacks. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel. Production designer William Cruse. Editor Augie Hess. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Brian Tyler. Casting Denise Chamian. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.