Brave in its daring critical examination of the Iranian authorities and President Ahmadinejad, The Hunter is disappointingly let down by its unevenness: thrilling at its climax, almost impenetrable in the first half.
Ali, an ex-convict whose crime is never disclosed, works late night shifts as a security guard, leaving him precious little time to spend with his wife and daughter. In his spare moments he finds sanctuary in solitary hunting expeditions in the surrounding woodlands, a tranquil respite away from the grind of urban life. However, Ali’s about-bearable existence is suddenly ruptured when his wife, allegedly caught in the crossfire between insurgents and the police, dies from a fatal gunshot wound and his daughter is reported lost, presumed dead, in the ensuing melee.
Enraged by the handling of the investigation (or a prior conflict in his unexplored past) and pushed to breaking point, Ali turns his hunting rifle on the authorities, indiscriminately killing two policeman in a passing patrol car. Before he can continue his revenge mission, the police are on Ali’s tail and, fleeing to the forest, the hunter becomes the hunted.
Rafi Pitts both stars and directs in what is his first feature since 2006’s It’s Winter, a slow paced study of Iranian life similarly characterised by minimal dialogue and gorgeous cinematography. Unfortunately, Pitts falls into a familiar trap of many an art-house director, mistaking excruciatingly long silences for psychological exposition, draining the action of any immediacy or energy. Whilst the absence of conversation could be interpreted as a metaphor for the silenced voices of an oppressed majority, it also induces the unpleasant side-effect of extreme boredom, the characters’ unwillingness to speak even extending to non-verbal communication between Ali and his wife. One even wonders if Pitts is capable of dialogue at all.
However, for every one of The Hunter’s faults there is an array of positives; the portrayal of Tehran as a labyrinth of motorways, industrial plants and suffocating apartment complexes is suitably dystopian, an Orwellian world shaded in by a Kafkaesque sense of inferiority; the incessant politicised radio broadcasts which bellow from every loudspeaker are ominous and threatening; the car-chase sans fanfare that leads to Ali’s temporary imprisonment in an abandoned cabin is both menacing and gripping; the bickering of Ali’s captors, who disagree over whether to kill him on the spot or grant him the justice of a jury, acts as a neat encapsulation of warring ideologies. It’s a shame, therefore, that Pitts renders the opening of his film so desperately dull considering his evident ability in the handling of the second half.
Nick James, writing in a recent editorial in Sight and Sound, posed the theory that there is in fact little difference between films like Avatar and low-budget art-house projects, both of which require the audience to withstand protracted scenes of immense visual beauty for what amount to tiny pay offs – Pitts’ film is no exception. Ultimately, The Hunter demands a lot from its audience, perhaps too much, but it is also an undeniably powerful piece of cinema that appears to have inexplicably passed through strict censorship legislation which you would have expected to restrict material of this nature. It will be interesting to see which direction Pitts takes next and if he’ll have learnt from his mistakes.