From intricate character studies like “The River,” to grand narratives like “Jungleland,” the stories crafted by Bruce Springsteen have always had a cinematic quality about them which transcends the songs they fill. Perhaps that is why he is so apt at soundtracks, earning two Golden Globe Awards and an Oscar for “The Streets of Philadelphia” in addition to his 20 Grammys. So, when it was announced that the Boss was stepping behind the camera — for the first time, believe it or not — the news was intriguing if nothing else.
Originally, Springsteen was to direct a short film named for a track on his latest album, “High Hopes,” called “Hunter of Invisible Game.” Partnering with Springsteen on the project was long-time collaborator Thom Zemny, who in addition to helming a number of documentaries about the rock star has earned due acclaim for his work editing HBO’s “The Wire.”
But even with the screen experience of Zemny and the obvious artistic merits of Springsteen, expectations remained cautiously low. After all, their HBO documentary “High Hopes” proved mediocre at best, and we’ve only been let down before by musicians dabbling in filmmaking (please don’t get me started on Kanye West’s Kubrickian tribute to himself).
But could I have been wrong? After a minute of Springteen’s fantasy-like contemporary western, I was stunned by the excellent landscapes and true sense of place. Scored with enticing and appropriate roots music, the first half serves as a simple yet fully realized narrative as Springsteen’s character wanders through a new sort of post-apocalyptic venue: an everyday, temperate forest. The simplicity of the story is charming in a “why haven’t we thought of that” kind of way, given that most depictions of life after civilization are in the remnants of great cities or barren wastelands. The plot develops as he meets a lost child and helps the boy reunite with his family. The imagery is a stunning weave of extreme close-up and wide landscapes, at once bringing to life little things like a wind chime or a leaf, and trivializing them.
Regrettably, this story — which evokes obvious associations to McCarthy’s “The Road” — only lasts so long, and “Hunter of Invisible Game” devolves into a rather ordinary music video for that eponymous song. Still, this functions as well as any such drop can into the story. It becomes a contemporary Shakespearean aside; the protagonist’s chance to directly address his audience and tell his story from the inside.
Much like his music video for “The Streets of Philadelphia,” this serves as a chance for Bruce to tell the story of a place, walking with a strange sense of purpose through his unique world in the same sort of way we saw as he crossed the battered, urban locations of the former. So, yes, Bruce Springsteen can make a dignified and effective short. This only makes us wonder what he will do next, and forces me to state that I have learned my lesson about doubting him. The legend of The Boss only grows.