The death of William Friedkin made me immediately want to revisit his work and reflect on the power of his storytelling.
Just hearing a “William Friedkin Film” has always filled me with anticipation and dread. His movies (with very few exceptions) are typically enthralling but punishing.
In learning of our collective loss, as Friedkin died August 7 at the age of 87, my temptation was to simply rewatch my favorite of his films, “Sorcerer” (1977). Instead, I thought I’d throw on a film of his that I detested the first time I saw it but have always been curious to revisit: Friedkin’s 2003 Tommy Lee Jones/ Benicio Del Toro thriller, “The Hunted.”
“The Hunted” opens during the Kosovo War, where Del Toro’s Aaron Hallam is a black ops super soldier, taking out enemies from the shadows while innocent civilians are mowed down by machine gun fire.
While Hallam is the hero of this conflict and is awarded for his ability to enter the nest and assassinate the sadist ordering an entire villain to be slaughtered, Hallam’s achievements are not acknowledged beyond the few who were with him.
His missions are top secret.
Hallam returns to civilian life and is plagued with nightmares and PTSD. He is unable to hit the OFF switch on his talent for killing. After Hallam’s handiwork reveals itself on a pair of dumb hunters, Jones’ L.T. Bonham is asked to bring Hallam into custody.
Why? Because Bonham is a tracker with an uncanny ability to find anyone in nature and, most importantly, he’s the man who trained Hallam to become a ruthless and efficient killing machine.
The first time I saw “The Hunted,” I found it easy to resist, as the gore is repellent, and the story feels like a crass collision of “Rambo” and “The Fugitive.” In fact, the Hallam/ Bonham dynamic is almost identical to the John Rambo/ Col. Trautman angle of “First Blood.”
This could easily have been rewritten as a subsequent “Rambo” sequel or even “The Fugitive, Part III.”
At least, that’s what I thought the first time I saw this.
Looking at “The Hunted” with a fresh perspective (seeing where it fits into the themes of Friedkin’s most prominent films and recognizing that the violence is necessarily off putting), I was struck by how the story is far more Jack London than David Morrell.
The introductory scenes of both Del Toro and Jones’ characters speak to their abilities to maintain their bodies as a steady force in unforgiving environments, managing not to be swallowed up by nature by making themselves predators.
There is an undeniably pulpy quality to the story (and Connie Nielsen’s appearance in this and “Basic,” which opened in the same month, is to use the talented actress as an exposition dispenser) but Friedkin stages it with an uncanny ability to derive harsh poetry from the imagery.
The multiple chase sequences don’t suggest a mechanical, who-will-catch-who scenario as much as a demonstration of how the central characters are always in their element when they’re on the edge of death in dangerous terrain. There are lots of moments to cite, but the final battle, a knife fight in front of a roaring waterfall, is breathtaking in its staging.
Neither Jones nor Del Toro are giving going-through-the-motions paycheck performances – both are excellent here. Friedkin achieves the kind of immersive, down and dirty survival yarn here that Joe Carnahan’s terrific “The Grey” (2011) also nailed eight years later.
The two would make a great double feature.
Friedkin’s films share many of the same attributes of “The Hunted,” as his works have depicted unreliable, honor-less but determined men of action (“The French Connection,” “Sorcerer” and “To Live and Die in L.A.”) who are beyond redemption and express themselves through brute force.
The male protagonists in Friedkin’s films “win” in the end by surviving (like the priest who leaves the MacNeil house at the conclusion of “The Exorcist” or the father in the unfairly ridiculed “The Guardian”).
The law enforcers of Friedkin’s films are usually despicable but fascinating (as in “The French Connection,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” and, yes, even in the infamous “Jade”).
Friedkin has depicted how military service impacts the psyche of its soldiers, with both “Rules of Engagement” (2000) and “The Hunted” (both starring Jones) exploring this, though I recommend a deeper cut in Friedkin’s body of work that ties directly to “The Hunted.”
In addition to his towering films, William Friedkin directed one of the most disturbing episodes of TV ever with the “Nightcrawlers” for the Twilight Zone reboot in 1985. It left me shattered as a kid. It’s set in a diner, and years later, I would pay it homage in my film LEGION. pic.twitter.com/rcRjMXsVv7
— Scott Stewart (@robotproof) August 8, 2023
Friedkin’s 1985 episode of “The Twilight Zone,” titled “Nightcrawlers,” follows a battle-weary soldier who is able to psychically manifest the agonies of war. That episode (which you can find on YouTube and elsewhere) was so controversial, ahead of its time and violent that it caused CBS to air the subsequent episodes of the series at a later hour.
The still-disturbing “Nightcrawlers” and “The Hunted” are proper cinematic companion pieces.
It happens rarely that I see a film from long ago that I used to despise but now hold in high regard (Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” is another rare example). Let me use this opportunity to be transparent and make a point: sometimes movie critics get it wrong and need to revisit art they initially dismissed.
Many of Friedkin’s best films, including “Sorcerer” and “Bug” (2006), were met with audience hatred and a muted response from critics but have since been reappraised as overlooked classics in Friedkin’s body of work.
I didn’t realize “The Hunted” was worthy of that category until recently, as seeing this burly adventure tale 20 years later allowed me to properly appreciate how, at his best, Friedkin’s cinema was uncompromised, morally ambiguous, complex and superb in its storytelling.
“The Hunted” is a winner, and Friedkin’s work will always maintain its blunt, absorbing and rewarding nature.