What Comes Around 

Two recent movies getting mixed reviews have plenty to say about America in 2003

Two recent movies getting mixed reviews have plenty to say about America in 2003

A couple of strong and wild films by hit-and-miss auteurs have been getting scabrous reviews since their recent release, and though some critics have admitted that both are pretty entertaining, I’d argue that they’re a good deal more than that. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Lawrence Kasdan have made an amusingly ludicrous comic nightmare out of Stephen King’s surreal, despairing novel Dreamcatcher, while the William Friedkin-directed The Hunted is simple, exciting and perhaps the best American film of the year so far. And beneath their bloody pulp exteriors, both movies have something to say about moral culpability and the way that past actions can sneak up on us and claw at our backs.

The Hunted’s theme is at once more obvious and more subtle. Tommy Lee Jones plays L.T. Bonham, an outdoorsman who moonlights for the military, teaching special operatives how to stalk and kill the enemy. Benicio Del Toro plays Aaron Hallam, one of his prize pupils, who goes mad after a mission in Kosovo where he sees allied bombs killing as many civilians as the bad guys do. Hallam disappears into the American wilderness and starts slaughtering hunters in a kind of twisted, righteous rage. Bonham is brought in to track him down, with the help of FBI agent Abby Durrell, played by Connie Nielsen. At one point, Durrell asks Bonham—who claims never to have killed a man—if he takes any responsibility for the actions of the men he trained. Bonham dismisses the question curtly, though his eyes, buried in a thicket of hair and beard, display plenty of ambiguity.

That moment between Bonham and Durrell is the sole overt nod to a deeper meaning within the film. The rest of the movie is a taut chase thriller that moves from federally protected forests to the streets of Portland, Ore., and then—most pointedly—to the greenspaces within and just outside the city. Friedkin captures all this with a leanness and clear sense of space that recalls his work on The French Connection and the underrated Rampage.

And yet, though the discussion of personal responsibility lasts only about a minute, its repercussions run through the entirety of The Hunted, especially as Bonham dodges the traps that Hallam has set for him in the woods. On one level, The Hunted is a no-nonsense action picture; on another, it’s an unsettling metaphor for what happens when we make it possible for others to murder on our behalf.

A similar idea underscores Dreamcatcher. Stephen King’s novel was written while he recuperated from being hit by a van a couple of years back, and the influence of regret, mortality and pain medication is all over the near-stream-of-consciousness plotting. Dreamcatcher features clairvoyant hunting buddies, flashbacks to a Stand By Me-like Maine childhood, a mysterious retarded man, covert military forces led by a demented egomaniac, an alien invasion, and Lovecraftian beasties that come blasting out the rectum. The movie also emphasizes the visual motif of the title object, a Native American handicraft that theoretically traps bad dreams in its webbing while letting good ones slip through a hole in the middle. The idea of containment recurs in Dreamcatcher—the government tries to rein in space invaders, and people try to hide the information in their heads—along with the idea that something unwanted always gets past the blockade. Embedded in the bones of the story is the sense that no matter how much good you try to do, it may all be ruined in a single moment, when an alliance from the past drags you into risk (or, non-allegorically, when some yahoo runs you over).

Dreamcatcher is an extremely odd film, and riotously so. Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant are engaging as the quartet of mind-reading thirtysomethings, but they have a hard time making King-ian slang like “Jesus Christ bananas” and “fuck me Freddy” sound natural. Morgan Freeman as an alien-hating army colonel delivers every line in a growly deadpan, making his hyper-macho military-speak all the stranger. And Donnie Wahlberg’s performance as a cancer-ridden, mentally challenged Scooby Doo fan is practically sidesplitting, especially when his third-act appearance builds to a would-be tearjerker moment so tacky that it has to be parodic.

For those who think the movie is unintentionally awful, well, I can’t say that they’re wrong, though I hasten to add that I subscribe to the critical theory that pleasure is pleasure, and if you’re laughing and having a good time, maybe the movie’s OK after all. And anyway, I can’t say that the filmmakers are oblivious to how Dreamcatcher plays. Goldman may be, given his witless recent screenplay adaptation of King’s Hearts in Atlantis; but Kasdan’s last feature was the warm, funny and offbeat Mumford, and Dreamcatcher has some of the same atmosphere of barely repressed anxiety and quirky humanity. And as with Friedkin’s The Hunted, Kasdan makes the most of the “movies for guys” milieu to tell a story that, beneath the splatter, is really about the panic that sets in when something you’ve done causes you to lose control of your life.

And that, ultimately, is why I think both films are getting a bad rap. Dreamcatcher and The Hunted were conceived several years ago, before the current war in Iraq and maybe even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that doesn’t make them any less relevant, especially when so few movies grapple with the implications of invasion, mass imprisonment and the creeping paranoia that accompanies acts of vengeance. The Hunted implies that immoral behavior will have lasting repercussions, and Dreamcatcher implies that even well-intentioned action can lead to misery and gore. For all their outlandishness, both are about as “real” as movies get right now.

—Noel Murray

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