Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio del Toro’s climactic duel is a stupendous piece of filmmaking in a good film that could have been great with some judicious paring.
Every month, The Spool chooses to highlight a filmmaker whose works have made a distinct mark on the cinematic landscape.
The funny thing about William Friedkin is that if you ask six people what their favorite Friedkin film is, you’ll get six different answers. These hot and cold responses marked Friedkin’s career overall, one that, for all its faults and stumbles, was never predictable or boring. He had no trademark and refused to be pinned down.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
At the risk of making a “getting a lot of Sorcerer vibes from this” guy out of myself, The Hunted—William Friedkin’s 2003 old-master-hunts-rogue-student thriller really does make for a fascinating counterpart to his earlier men-on-a-desperate-mission masterwork. Both delve into the lives of damaged, forlorn, isolated men on perilous quests for deliverance. And both of those quests lead deep into madness. Both pointedly contrast man-made, flame-choked hellscapes (Sorcerer‘s exploding oil well, The Hunted‘s secret mission amidst the Kosovo War) with the vast, amoral green of the deep forest (Columbia and Oregon, respectively). Both turn on setpieces that thrill while maintaining a grounded (if not necessarily “realistic”) feel and weave surreality in with care.
But where Sorcerer gradually stripped its cast down to Roy Scheider’s increasingly unraveled one-time getaway driver Jackie, The Hunted is a two-man show. Benicio del Toro‘s possibly insane, definitely murderous special forces operator Aaron Hallam and Tommy Lee Jones‘ lonely but self-exiling master survivalist L.T. Bonham share an intimate, inevitably fraught bond. Beyond Bonham having mentored Hallam in survival and knife killing (flashbacks emphasize that, while knife fighting was certainly part of Bonham’s teaching, he was first and foremost educating Hallam and his peers on how to achieve maximum lethality with a blade), they recognize their own emptiness and self-hatred in each other.
Bonham quit training special forces out of disgust with his having helped feed the military-industrial complex and its death machine. He’s not a full-blown hermit, but he’s taken himself out of the world. An early moment in the film where he frees and treats a wolf injured by a cruel hunter’s snare may be his happiest in years. Hallam, having cut away almost everything in himself that isn’t directly related to killing, cannot cope with who he has become. His brief, mid-film reunion with his onetime girlfriend Irene (Leslie Stefanson) and her daughter Loretta (Jenna Boyd) offers him both fleeting happiness and bitter confirmation that he can no longer live a non-paranoid, non-violent life.
Friedkin gives Jones and del Toro the literal and metaphorical space they need to build Bonham, Hallam, and their inevitably lethal bond. Working from a script by David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, and Art Monterastelli, Friedkin deftly balances Bonham and Hallam’s screentime—giving both men lengthy introductory sequences (another echo of Sorcerer) to establish how they move through the world before pitting them against each other in a tense initial skirmish that highlights the strength of Jones and del Toro’s thorny chemistry. While their subsequent separation leads to The Hunted‘s weakest sequences (Hallam’s reunion with Irene and Loretta, in particular, is more interesting in concept than execution), Friedkin uses their time apart to increase the narrative’s pressure. When Bonham and Hallam reunite for their final, fatal battle, it is as cathartic as it is exciting—the chase is over, the questions they had about themselves have been answered, and all that remains is the duel.
The duel? It’s a hell of a piece of filmcraft. Aesthetically, it’s top-form Friedkin—an intimate clash that’s acutely aware of the world around his fighters and the way it shapes their actions. Narratively, it’s The Hunted‘s most elegant and satisfying piece of storytelling (down to the knives Hallam and Bonham craft for their battle reflecting their core characters—both brittle, both dangerous, Hallam because all he’s got left is a murderous system and Bonham because he’s carrying around ragged and raw guilt). As an action scene, it’s a marvelously choreographed clash between two game performers—del Toro and Jones (choreographed by Dino Haynes and with double work by John Meier and Chad Randall), both of whom do the work and do it well. Bonham and Hallam are supremely skilled knife fighters who’ve spent the past few days running themselves past the red line. That is not a fight that’s won easily. That is a fight won inch by bloody inch. Jones, del Toro, and the stunt team sell that. Friedkin, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and editor Augie Hess shape it into an indelible climax.
As a study of Hallam, Bonham, and their bond, The Hunted is quite good. As an action movie, it runs from solid (a second-act car chase) to impressive (Hallam’s nightmarish opening mission) to an all-timer (its climax). Outside its leads, it is less successful. Connie Nielsen is good as FBI agent Abbie Durrell, but she and her fellow agents could either have done with more screen time or less focus. Hallam’s brief reunion with Irene and Loretta is, as mentioned earlier, awkward and halting—and past the point where that’s attributable to Hallam’s inability to interact with people from outside his violent world. Had Friedkin narrowed his focus to Hallam and Bonham or expanded the film into a true ensemble piece, The Hunted might have been excellent. As it stands, it’s a good film with some very, very sharp elements—a fine entry in Friedkin’s long and fascinating oeuvre, worth seeing at least once.