Since collaborating on “The Foot Fist Way” over a decade ago, writer-director Jody Hill and writer-actor Danny McBride have built an impressive body of film and TV work, dedicated to the notion that certain Southern American males are hilariously, destructively bullheaded. Working with friends on the HBO shows “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals,” Hill and McBride have created several strangely endearing macho dopes.
The duo’s new movie, “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” (written with John Carcieri), is less amped-up than usual… which may explain why it’s been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years before finally getting a release via Netflix. But while it’s a picture of modest ambition — with a fairly predictable plot — it has enough of Hill and McBride’s usual themes and humor to appeal to fans.
Josh Brolin stars as Buck Ferguson, a celebrity hunter whose outdoor lifestyle videos have been declining in popularity. The film follows Ferguson and his teenage son Jaden (played by Montana Jordan of TV’s “Young Sheldon”) on a trip into the North Carolina mountains that Buck hopes will culminate in the boy’s first kill. The whole campaign’s videotaped by Ferguson’s trusty cameraman, Don (McBride).
“The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” is more of a wistful character sketch than a fully realized wilderness comedy. Brolin, who’s excellent, plays Buck as a man who fears he’s losing what matters, starting with his ex-wife Caroline (Carrie Coon), who left him for a more affable, modern guy named Greg (played by Scoot McNairy… who like Coon doesn’t show up in the film nearly enough).
Jaden, meanwhile, seems enthusiastic about killing his first deer, but is also distracted by texts and calls from his girlfriend, and is bored by his dad’s insistence on doing everything old-school. Buck has a lot riding on convincing his son to share his interests, yet every day out in the woods their relationship seems to worsen.
Don’s no help. In the movie’s funniest moments, he keeps taking the “earthy male bonding” part of Buck’s mission too far, sharing dirty jokes and pictures with Jaden, and making his more conservative boss uncomfortable.
Devotees of indie/art house cinema ought to notice that “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” has a lot in common with writer-directors Alex and Andrew Smith’s fine 2017 drama “Walking Out,” which is also about an emotionally distant father taking his son on an awkward hunting trip. The Smith brothers’ film has the tension and twists that Hill and McBride’s story mostly lacks (aside from one nail-biting scene involving a rope bridge across a raging river).
But like “Walking Out,” this movie’s not really critical of gun culture or outdoorsmen. Brolin’s Buck is more sympathetic than pathetic. He’s somewhat ridiculous, with his micro-managing of Don’s shot selections and his clumsy product placement for air mattresses and canned deer urine. But the Bible verses and American flags adorning his videos are barely played for laughs.
For the most part, both generations of Fergusons are refreshingly unexaggerated. As Jaden, the talented and charismatic Jordan looks and acts like a real kid, at once self-absorbed and recklessly passionate. There’s something poignant about Buck trying not to be too annoyed by his incessant complaints — and trying to show genuine interest when Jaden clumsily plays Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on the guitar.
It’s a shame that Hill and company didn’t work these characters and vignettes into a punchier scenario, as they have before. But “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” is still likable, thanks to the obvious affection and compassion that the filmmakers and their leading actor have for men like Buck.
This movie neither celebrates nor interrogates the kind of guy who prefers processed cheese and American whiskey to Brie and Scotch. It just looks at him really close through a rifle scope, too overwhelmed by nostalgia to put a finger on the trigger.
“The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter”
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes
Playing: Streaming on Netflix, July 6