In two television series (“Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals”) and two feature films (“The Foot Fist Way” and “Observe and Report”), writer/director Jody Hill and writer/star Danny McBride have created a devastatingly funny and increasingly relevant commentary on the curse of toxic masculinity. The Hill/McBride “hero” is, in most cases, a retrograde blowhard, dumb as a stump and proud as a peacock, the kind of forgotten man that was easy to dismiss until they put their alpha male into the Oval Office.
The specificity with which their best works address (and, to some extent, explain) the broken soul of the American man in the 2010s is, unfortunately, a quality that’s barely present in their latest collaboration – which is particularly disappointing, because they’ve selected such a juicy target. “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” concerns that most macho and yet inexplicable of American male traditions, sport hunting; its protagonist is Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin), the gloriously mustached tracker of whitetail deer and star of the “Buck Fever” hunting DVDs, all faithfully shot by his right-hand man Don (McBride).
The buzzwords of the series are “fun, freedom, and family traditions,” though the latter is an illusion; Buck and his wife (Carrie Coon, wasted) divorced a couple of years back, and relations with his son Jaden (Montana Jordan) have grown strained. But Buck has a plan to fix all that, “a rite of passage as old as time”: He’ll take Jaden out to bag his first deer, and Don will capture it all. “Fly on the wall with the camera,” Buck tells his cameraman. “Me and Jordan are here to bond… This’ll be the greatest video we ever make.”
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As you might expect, that’s not quite how it goes. Early on, they seem to have a perfect first kill lined up – and then it’s punctured by the blasting ring of Jaden’s cell phone, yet another call from his girlfriend back home. When Buck gently suggests he consider putting the phone away for a couple of days, his son is livid: “We’re each other’s support system!” The longer they’re together, the more they snipe; the more Buck insists on the importance of their trip, of preserving their bond, of passing on the rituals of the hunt, the less interested the boy becomes. “Ain’t like it’s gonna affect my life in any significant way,” he shrugs, not unreasonably.
The script – which Hill and McBride penned with John Carcieri (a vet of “Eastbound” and “Vice Principals”) – also digs into the codependent relationship between Buck and Don, who is not only required to be a filmmaker, but a supporter and fan. It’s exhausting for poor Don, who floats the idea of retiring to Kentucky with his girlfriend; Buck says it’s a bad time. “Maybe in like a year or so, but probably not!” he growls. “Sounds good,” Don cheerily replies.
“Whitetail Deer” is primarily valuable as a showcase for Brolin’s considerable (and undervalued) comic chops – his timing is exquisite, and he gets all the way into this guy’s skin to find the outdated ideas and false bravado that fuels him. There’s a great bit in which he’s trying to pep-talk himself into crossing a flimsy rope bridge, and it’s a funny moment, but also the key to the entire character; he’s been bluffing so long, he’s bought into his own bullshit. In that way, he’s playing the role McBride usually takes himself; this time, as the put-upon sidekick, McBride get his laughs, but more often functions as the straight man. (He does that well, too.) Filling that function, he can also steal scenes left and right – in fact, his funniest moments come near the end, when he’s half-alive and half-delirious, his mumbled encouragements to the father and son (“Y’all just keep talkin’, I’m bleeedin’…”) nicely punctures their telegraphed heart-to-heart.
Hill fires off a couple of funny montages – none have the deliciously dirty kick of Ronnie’s descent into hell in “Observe and Report,” but then again, few things on this earth do – and the running gags are set up and paid off smoothly. But it’s an oddly chintzy-looking movie, particularly for one bearing the name of a major producer like Scott Rudin; the titles look cheap, and the flat cinematography rarely does right by the outdoor locations.
Not that it’ll matter much, in the long run – the final destination for “Whitetail Deer Hunter” is Netflix, and the fact that it’s landing there so long after its production (cameras rolled clear back in 2015) probably tells you all you need to know about its comparative quality. It’s yet another streaming “original” that’s best regarded as background noise, the kind of thing you’ll have on while folding clothes or checking Instagram, and it’ll pass the time just fine in that capacity.
But there are some real missed opportunities here. After several weeks of hearing about how common-sense gun laws would irreparably damage the sacred culture of hunting and the father-son bond it forges, it would’ve been nice to see this team (even accidentally, three years ago) taking a sledgehammer to that nonsense, as they have with authoritarianism and celebrity in their previous works. Instead, they almost seem to buy in, giving Buck an earnest speech about the appeal of hunting (“You fulfill your rightful place in nature,” he insists, “just for one moment”) which Brolin delivers so sincerely, it’s almost as if we’re supposed to believe him. It’s an odd moment of miscalculation in what’s otherwise merely a slight, forgettable picture.