A review of Legacy of the White Tail Deer Hunter (SXSW 2018)
by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.
Buck (Josh Brolin) is a legendary hunter staring in his own video series. His loyal cameraman Don (Danny McBride) accompanies Buck on a special hunting trip—the first for his son Jaden (Montana Jordan). The hunter’s situation in life is reflected in an old buck deer they site early on the trip—the animal has a huge rack and a sad, grey-looking face. Buck categorizes him as a non-typical specimen, and certainly, this describes Buck well. This film stays within the pattern of films at SXSW 2018 dealing with broken families and the difficult rites of passages for the kids in such a situation.
As a single dad in a metaphorical sense, Buck is out in the wilderness on his own. As Jaden’s father, he is indeed an endangered species. The only real parenting he is allowed, or one he feels competent to take on, is this particular rite of passage for his son. He is proud of his prowess as a hunter—unhampered by any hint of PETA-motivated second thoughts. Using Biblical scripture in his videos, he seems to claim a divine right to hunt—or more generally, to be a man’s man.
Nevertheless, this man has lost his wife (Carrie Coon) to a younger buck, Greg (Scoot McNairy), who is poised to marry his ex. Buck seems to be losing his son as well to this would-be stepdad. Just before the big hunt, Greg pulls a pre-emptive strike by buying Jaden a semi-assault rifle with a laser gunsight. Greg acts before his real dad can gift his son with the antique level action piece he has been saving for this occasion. This gun was handed to Buck from his dad on the occasion of his first hunt. Like the cell phone he brings on the hunt, Jaden prefers the new and techie over the old and simple. Of course, this preference is reflected in Buck’s fears that, as a dad, he will be put aside for a newer model. This rejection is quite difficult for a man awash in masculine hubris.
Notable in this ritual, the shedding of blood is a recurring action reflected in many coming of age movies. Hunting and shooting your first deer is a significant rite of passage, sort of a Bar Mitzvah for the Bowie Knife crowd. In a literal and metaphorical sense, both Buck and his son shed blood, and in spite of the twists, the ritual succeeds in triggering the transition it was meant to make. While the film has many comical (or absurd) moments, it is poignant to see the rite unfold in spite of Buck’s many misassumptions and miscalculations about all his relationships.
The passage is for Buck as well. He comes away with a new understanding of what the father/son relationship must be in moving ahead. At the same time, he learns how to be true to who is while improving himself as a father and as a friend.