Friedkin: The Hunted (2003)

The Hunted is a gem in William Friedkin’s later filmography and a continuation of the globalised paranoia of his classic string of releases in the 1970s. It opens with a prelude depicting Aaron Hallam, a Delta Force operator played by Benicio del Toro, witnessing a string of atrocities in the Kosovo War. We then shift back to the United States, where Aaron has returned home, and gone rogue, expressing his PTSD by “hunting” civilians in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. The Portland police enlist L.T. Bonham, Aaron’s Special Forces instructor, played by Tommy Lee Jones. to bring him in, and so a hunt ensues, in which master and mentee are pitted against one another. Bonham quickly deduces that “the battle spirit has gone so deep it has become a part of his personality” while Aaron has always known  his actions would bring his instructor back into the picture and force them into a primal conflict.  

In that sense, The Hunted continues the project of The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer and Cruising, all of which contemplated the fate of masculinity in an increasingly globalised world. In these films, Friedkin opened up an emergent and virtual space between men that both brought them closer together and jettisoned them further apart. Here, this has evolved into Bonham’s training sessions, which we see in flashback, and which feel more like an exercise in palaeomasculinity than a traditional army course. In a spiritual sequel to Fight Club, Bonham inducts Aaron into a survivalist club, more focused on living off the grid in America than in overseas combat. By drawing Bonham back into direct contact, Aaron envisages a final graduation from this palaeomasculine skill set into a full survivalist lifestyle.  

To that end, screenwriters David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths and Art Monterastelli take the screenplay in a more original and unusual direction than one might initially suspect. With a runtime of barely ninety minutes, the first twenty of which are spent establishing the premise, it would be easy to assume that the entire film would involve a single sustained hunt in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. Yet Bonham finds Aaron almost immediately and the intensity of the hunt is condensed into one primal fight scene. To set the stage for this, Friedkin imbues nature with a hyperbolic, almost primeval lushness, not unlike that of The Guardian, his 1990 horror film about a tree that takes on human form. Everything drips with moisture, moss covers every surface, and vegetation occupies every vertical plane of space – or, rather, makes the viewer acutely aware of every vertical plane of space, as does Bonham’s fear of heights, which invests the early helicopter sequence, when he touches down in the woodland outside Portland, with a distinctly queasy edge. Likewise, Aaron is quite vegetative in this environment, where he first shows himself in his entirety perched high in a towering conifer.  

This hyper-lush space already presumes a heightened state of awareness, which peaks when the two men encounter each other for the first time. They mark this occasion with a largely silent fight scene that leans heavily into millennial flo-mo, halfway between The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but without the aid of digital augmentation. Instead, that virtual dimension is deflected onto the landscape itself, which exudes the preternatural perception of the Pacific Northwest of The X-Files, a constant point of reference in these early scenes. As the two men circle and stare into each other’s eyes, the global and homosocial converge in the narrowing space between them, not unlike the moment, midway through Cruising, when Pacino’s character looks out his bedroom window to see his queer quarry watching him from the park across the road. In fact, The Hunted is closer in spirit to Cruising than any of Friedkin’s classic films, thanks to this unusual space between Aaron and Bonham, both intimate and anonymous, which soon expands into a plethora of other marginal spaces.  

This ushers in the most distinctive feature of The Hunted – its effort to remain at the nexus between city and wilderness, and to take place entirely in the most eccentric interstices between Portland and the Pacific Northwest woods that surround and penetrate it. Portland is a good city for this project, since the natural world almost percolates right to the heart of the downtown area, and the film emphasises that topography in a myriad of indirect and subtle ways. At one point, we cut to a shot of a police office with a poster of “Metro Urban Reserves and Urban Growth Boundaries” in the background. At another point, one character gazes out and observes “not a great view of the city,” to which his companion responds “it’s a wilderness.” Twice it looks like the narrative will take place in the woods – when Bonham first encounters Aaron and then when Aaron’s bus crashes on the way to prison – and both times the focus returns to the city. Yet the city is never full urbanised either. When Aaron flees into a building site by the Willamette river, he emerges from a manhole in Downtown.  

This fixation with the mobile interface between city and wilderness crystallises into one of the most beautiful sequences of Friedkin’s late career – a chase that takes Bonham and Aaron through the middle of Portland, in a spiritual sequel to the tracking scene at the heart of Cruising. The canted angles that Friedkin uses to shoot the wilderness are now gradually absorbed back into the city, which grows wild in the process, producing a series of shifting planes of vertical space that take us from Paranoid Park, to Keller Fountain Park, amidst a panoply of car bridges, pedestrian bridges, underpasses and overpasses, some close at hand and some in the far distance. Finally, these canted angles are formalised as the girders of the Hawthorne Bridge, which Aaron scales before gathering all these disparate layers of vertical space by leaping from the highest pinnacle to the roiling flow of the Willamette River below.   

Throughout this extraordinary scene, Aaron and Bonham engage in an unusual type of contest. In order to wrest control of the globalised anxiety that was birthed from their palaeomasculine bonding, they compete to see who can occupy the subtlest connective tissue between city and wilderness – who can make the other fall most vertiginously from nature to culture and back again. When Aaron finally rises from the river he’s in the wilderness once more and yet even the waterfall where he makes landfall turns out to be the dilapidated site of a former hydroelectric plant. As he lies in wait for Bonham, he fashions weapons from industrial detritus, and when the two men finally fight, it’s for this contested threshold between wilderness and technology. Neither of them exactly wins, however, leaving that threshold evocatively open, emergent, unresolved, in one of the most beautiful endings of Friedkin’s late career – and perhaps the truest to the spirit of his New Hollywood heyday too.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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