We've come to expect more than a few things from Iran in recent years, and that goes for its cinema as well (at least the films we actually get to see). The country's most notable movies employ a naturalistic aesthetic, blend fact and fiction, indulge in minimalism and, in that sense, "The Hunter" is a pretty large anomaly. Rafi Pitts's fourth narrative shares genes not with Abbas Kiarostami, but with the nonexistent birth child of Michael Haneke and Nuri Bilge Ceylan -- it's a quiet and patient thriller, complete with an eye for the country's terrain and how its nasty urban dwellings, cold environment, and abominable social/political climate affect its inhabitants. Like the Turkish auteur, there are small moments of truth that touch deeply, and similar to our Austrian grandfather, there are strategic, alarming bursts of violence sprinkled throughout. In short, "The Hunter" is the first must-see of 2012.
Director Pitts leads the film as Ali, a weathered, recently released convict who secures a graveyard shift security position much to his own chagrin. Since his wife and daughter are busy during the day with their respective responsibilities, Ali worries that he'll have little quality time with them thanks to their conflicting schedules. In between aimlessly walking around a warehouse and the commute back and forth to work (not to mention constant chatter of the upcoming election -- the one that resulted in little change -- flooding the radio airwaves), he kills his time camping out in the wilderness. Supposedly it's a solitary hunting trip, but rather than looking for game he meanders, taking in the atmosphere free of car congestion and the cruddy city landscape. When he finally comes upon an animal, we only know it because of the recognition on his face and the instant firing of his gun -- strangely enough, the prey isn't shown at any point. This peculiar handling keeps us away from the violence, but it also lends the film a mysterious discomfort. Questions arise as to why Ali is running around and shooting things for sport, and if he actually struck anything at all. He soon arrives to an empty house, discovering his wife and daughter missing. After an arduous process with the police, it is discovered that both were killed in a scuffle between insurgents and the authorities. With the only thing in his life that mattered destroyed, Ali commits a violent, random act of rebellion against society that forces him to go on the lam.
The filmmaker establishes his character's routine early on, devising a formula out of his forlorn day-to-day existence that effectively builds up tension through its monotony and coldness. It's a move that sounds calculating on paper, yet in execution is much more surreptitious; Ali's explosion is shocking but made even more devastating by the subtle work laid out before hand. Much attention is paid to the atmosphere around him, from the cacophony of city noises to the chirping fowl residing in his hunting getaway, substituting score for intricate sound design. Also worth noting is the key scene prior to the meltdown showing the family together: the young girl in a vast ball pit, the married couple enjoying a carnival game as if on a high school date. This sequence illustrates Ali's secure foundation, something he can always count on when his time card actually allows. After his kin are lost, he's left with only those detached moments of isolation.
After another actor fell out, Pitts opted to take the central role himself, after much hesitation and incessant "chain smoking." With little experience on his side it was a heavy gamble, but definitely one that paid off -- the director's acting is something akin to Homayoun Ershadi in "Taste of Cherry," completely insular and minimalistic, exhibiting much emotion with simple gestures and presence. There's an air of threatening mysteriousness surrounding him as he walks about, ready to pop at any moment. It's a rather compelling performance marked with the kind of restraint you'd expect from a more studied thespian. After an invigorating car chase handled less like the recent-and-incompetent "Fast Five" (seriously, Justin Lin, that's the only thing that needed to be good) and instead reaching back to the great "Bullitt" and "The French Connection," two more characters come into play. Together, the duo of cops (one old, one young) take a cue from Bertolt Brecht and represent an argument as opposed to fleshed out human beings: do they have the right to kill their prisoner (Ali) because he took the life of another officer, or is he due a proper court hearing regardless? Throwing them into the mix is a well-played move, one that raise the stakes considerably until the paralyzing climax.
As inconspicuous as the narrative is, its criticism of Iran is not so discreet. Pitts makes no bones about his lack of faith in his home country, so much so that it's a wonder the film even got made around the same time Jafar Panahi caught legal heat for only a movie pitch. "The Hunter" opens with a picture from the revolution but immediately shifts focus to the present, a time with little trace of positive change. He displays a hopeless society and argues the importance of family (and, late in the game, general brotherhood) in such an environment, and how far someone can fall when that is taken away without pity. Incredibly personal with accomplished skill in all areas, viewing this fantastic piece of work is a great way to start the new year. [B+]