Bookmark and follow our exclusive coverage of the South by Southwest Film Festival 2016.
You can tell a lot about a man by looking at his face. The roads he’s walked, the heartache; all is communicated without him speaking a single word. Such is the case with Ashley, Andre Royo’s lead character in the quiet and powerful Hunter Gatherer. Little is known about Ashley’s past, only that he just ended a three-year prison stint. But Royo’s frown lines and furrowed brow tell a story of pain. He is a newborn to the modern streets of South Central, with all the time in the world and no time to lose.
Ashley is in good company with the likes of Thief’s Frank and Silver Linings Playbook‘s Pat Solatano. All are men recently released from prison or the hospital, with little knowledge of their surroundings and a great desire to build themselves into a socially accepted, successful male stereotype. In Hunter Gatherer, Ashley wants more than anything to rekindle a romance with his former girlfriend, Linda (Ashley Wilkerson). Ashley must soon learn that adulthood is about compromise and, like all good protagonists, that by going after what he wants, he will find what he needs.
From the first frames of the film, Royo demands our attention. With the flash of a bemused smile or a piercing glare, the actor creates a character of great depth and humanity. Ashley exhibits a practiced calmness, an easygoing nature built to deflect all external negativity. At the same time, there is a tumultuous pain running beneath that looks like it’s ready to erupt at any moment. Many will draw comparisons to Royo’s character Bubbles from HBO’s The Wire. Both Ashley and Bubbles are fast-talking outcasts with a desire for connection. And both act as surrogate parents to younger male counterparts. In Hunter Gatherer, Ashley’s partner in industry is Jeremy, played by the subdued and immediately likable George Sample III. To only view this as a retread of The Wire would be to miss out on the subtle yet intense relationship these two build over the film’s short running time.
Josh Locy’s direction is the perfect counterpart to Royo and Sample’s performance styles. Locy prefers long takes to the quick, frenetic editing of recent indie fare; he comes from the camp of David Gordon Green, and the influence is visible. He takes the time to live with his characters, to establish the destructive electricity running through Ashley’s relationships. There is also a pulsing energy to this film that recalls the early work of Spike Lee. Between entertaining character vignettes, Locy places musical and sometimes abstract interludes. If this motif becomes somewhat repetitive by the end of the film, it’s hard to deny its infectious quality.
Hunter Gatherer is a film that slowly lures the viewer in and gets under the skin. The story is a sweet anti-narrative, a meandering tale where not much happens. At home with the contemporary indie vibe, the film also exhibits a classical voice. It recalls the poetic realism of Marcel Carne’s Port of Shadows and the slow characterization of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. There are narrative threads that don’t add up to much and a few unearned emotional reveals, but strangely, this doesn’t matter. By the time the film ends, the viewer has lived a lifetime with Ashley in only 90 minutes.
The film is an invitation to live on the outskirts of society where characters huddle together for warmth. In this setting, the offering of a used stereo can be seen as the most romantic of sentiments. Locy gives totemic power to these discarded items. A broken refrigerator represents the opportunity for financial gain and a defunct respirator is the last chance for Jeremy’s ailing grandfather. Like the props of Hunter Gatherer, its characters have been cast aside by a society that has no place for them. It is only through connection that Ashley and Jeremy find true happiness.
Hunter Gatherer is by no means perfect, but it leaves an impression that will linger for days to come, as images of Ashley and Jeremy continue to haunt the mind. Hunter Gatherer is that rare film that sneaks around the corner and smashes headlong into the viewer. With his controlled, intimate direction, Locy depicts a world where all its citizens are one day away from a cold bed in an alleyway. And it all begins with Royo’s face, those carved lines. We may not get all the details but, for a short time, we walk in another man’s shoes. We know him. Maybe that’s enough.