2018 Film Essays

Netflix’s ‘The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter’ Plays It Safe for Maximum Viewership

Director Jody Hill plays it entirely safe with his Netflix film The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter. For the left crowd, he offers the usual worn-out clichés about American outdoorsmen (ala “look at these gun-loving rednecks!”), while the right gets familiar dialogue about family values and the coming-of-age experience. Of course, there’s the signature Hill dialogue that made HBO series like Eastbound & Down and Vice Principals so binge-worthy. However, The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter suffers because its director simply fails to commit to a specific narrative vibe; he tries too hard to appease various demographics. As a result, the film is just OK — it’s neither entirely moving nor entirely comedic. To use a hunting phrase, “the safety is on.”

Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin), a man known for his hunting videos, feels inadequate when his son (Montana Jordan) begins paying more attention to his step-father (Scoot McNairy). Alas, a hunting trip will strengthen their bond, and it will be documented via Danny McBride’s cameraman character, Don.

After reading some reviews/hot takes on The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, it seems like some critics don’t fully grasp the dry, dry humor of Hill’s backwoods tropes. The director unsurprisingly comments on toxic masculinity via narrative exposition (“Colorful language! That’s why we leave the women at home!”), but the collective country jokes don’t have any bite. What’s unique, however, is that Hill’s characters aren’t especially tough; they’re not the grizzled men that foam from the mouth while discussing big city life and progressive concepts. They’re just good ol’ boys that feel comfortable within their home territory and appreciate tradition. With that said, I’m not quite sure what Hill is trying to say about these characters — it’s like he’s just working from a checklist and unwilling to push too hard. There’s a clear ideological conflict (old school vs. digital age mentalities), and there’s a thin layer of Modern Family subtext via the Cool Step-Dad archetype, but the fundamental problem, it seems, is that Brolin carries the film entirely by himself, while brilliant character actors like Carrie Coon, McNairy and McBride receive little to work with. Hill actually described the shoot as “a poor man’s Revenant” — a sentiment that will ironically appeal to critics and viewers who failed to look beyond the overtly dramatic aspects of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film, The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (“Oh, look, Leo says nothing and fights bears — such a man!”). In other words, it’s hard to appreciate the specificities of American outdoor narratives if one hasn’t properly experienced the American outdoors, and views the world through Kanye West-like shutter shades aka Venetian Blinds. Visually, Hill and cinematographer Eric Treml compose beautiful shots in The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter — unfortunately, that’s not enough to offset the flimsy script.

Comedically, Hill might’ve had something by utilizing a polarizing double act approach (the stooge and the straight man). And while I appreciate that McBride doesn’t receive the usual Kenny Powers-like dialogue (aside from a “swamp ass” line), the film loses its mojo because both male leads are normal fellas with no character depth. Hill fails to communicate real-life problems for Buck Ferguson beyond the obvious, and he could’ve raised some important questions through conversations that challenge the lead character’s mentality while offering some insight about the value of practical thinking. The situational humor doesn’t work because Brolin merely does his best to appear sympathetic with material that’s intentionally full of clichés. Meaning, it would have been fun if the primary male roles were reversed; Brolin receives more character depth and delivers a purely emotional performance, while McBride goes over the top with constant zingers. Instead, Hill presents Brolin as the typical country buffoon with a heart of gold; a man with common relationship problems but nothing else to say beyond that. To be clear, such men exist, but it’s disappointing that Hill serves the archetype on a silver platter for one crowd, all the while making Ferguson just accessible enough to satisfy another group. Safe.

The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter lacks “true grit.” It’s designed to feel relatable, yet Brolin’s impassioned performance can only do so much to override the stock dialogue and the narrative’s lack of originality.