The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival.
With everything he’s written and directed, Jody Hill (along with a rotating inner circle of writing partners) has ventured deeper and deeper into the psyche of the male buffoon. Of course, that means revealing that they aren’t actually buffoons at all, but severely troubled, often mentally unstable men with a swarm of demons nipping at their heels. For all of their blue humor, the characters in Vice Principals, Eastbound & Down, and especially Observe and Report occupy a very, very black place.
A remote expanse of woods seems like the perfect location to dive even deeper into the withering core of a Hill protagonist, offering none of the modern-day distractions of the suburban South, which has often been the setting of his work. Even if Eastbound‘s Kenny Powers was able to lug his jet ski out there, he’d have a hard time navigating it through the rapids.
But despite the secluded setting, Hill and co-writer Danny McBride (alongside John Carcieri) go in the opposite direction with their latest exploration of macho fuck-ups, The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter. Although B-list celebrity hunter Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin) has his fair share of problems, they’re more of the everyman variety. He’s still in love with his ex-wife (Carrie Coon) and has grown jealous of how much her new partner (Scoot McNairy) is bonding with their 11-year-old son, Jaden (Montana Jordan). He’s struggled a bit with drinking, but his substance abuse is a far cry from the constant cocaine and steroids consumption on Eastbound.
To strengthen his bond with his son and breathe some life into his video series, Buck takes Jaden and his cameraman Don (McBride) into the forest so the boy can kill his first whitetail deer. What follows is a mixture of macho posturing, survivalist hijinks, and moments where all three characters are forced to confront their relationships with each other. Buck finds it hard to hide his disgust over Jaden’s softness and constant attachment to his phone, Jaden grapples with his academic failures and pleasing his father, and Don questions his own allegiance to someone as selfish as Buck — a professional friendship that’s resulted in humility and a missing toe for him over the years.
However common this type of turmoil might be among fathers, sons, and friends, none of it makes for an especially compelling emotional arc, probably because we’ve seen this story so many times before. Pathos tends to rear its head in Hill’s work when he goes a little darker and weirder, when the problems go beyond men simply learning how to accept one another. When Buck, Jaden, and Don’s relationship issues are so run-of-the-mill, it’s easy to see how everything’s going to resolve itself.
What Legacy does have going for it, however, is the characters’ inner turmoil and a sense of humor. McBride proves to be adept as ever with good-natured (if misguided and inappropriate) dick jokes, and for such a young actor, Jordan strikes a remarkable balance between insufferable adolescence and outright vulnerability. His crowning moment comes when he tries to make his way through Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on guitar while everyone’s seated around a campfire. He fudges the chords and strives for emotion in the same awkward way as so many middle-schoolers before him (even though he’s been held back and is still in the fifth grade). You can’t help but both laugh at and feel for a kid who wants so badly to be both sensitive and backwoods-tough.
But the inevitable standout is Brolin, who digs his bloodied boot-heels into the role of Buck. On camera and in front of others, he’s all good ol’ machismo and hunter’s grin, both of which drop away during moments of solitude. Only then does he feel permitted to be self-hating and, at times, meditative — usually when he sees a deer. Regardless of his personality, the guy really does connect with nature. The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter may not achieve that same kind of majesty in its central conflict, but it succeeds as a minor work from Jody Hill, which if nothing else is still good for more than a few laughs.