The Hunter

Iran (2010) Dir. Rafi Pitts

Ali Alavi (Rafi Pitts) has recently been released from prison and while he finds employment, he is told by his new boss that as an ex-convict he doesn’t qualify for the day shift. This means Ali can no longer spend time with his wife Sara (Mitra Hajjar) and daughter Saba (Saba Yaghoobi). One day they go missing and Ali is told by the police that Sara was caught in the crossfire during a shoot out at a political rally, unsure if it was a police bullet or from a rioter’s gun. Saba is simply reported missing. Ali eventually snaps after identifying the bodies at the morgue and takes his revenge by shooting two policemen at random, eventually chased down and captured by two other officers.

A difficult film to summarise without relating the entire plot – somewhat apropos as this is quite a difficult film to follow. Like a lot of films The Hunter doesn’t offer many answers – in fact it hardly offers any at all – but making things harder for the viewer, it is something of a challenge to find the questions first, due to the almost empty narrative that impedes the basic task of contextualising the events we see unfold onscreen. Perhaps not a disjointed or random mess as some films but slightly hard work nonetheless.

Rafi Pitts is an Iranian writer and director who has won an army of fans among the more discerning film fans over the past decade with his emotional take on Iranian life, but any chance of crossing over towards mainstream attention a’la A Separation helmer Asghar Farhadi, is unlikely with his unsettling but deliberately oblique film.

Set, and shot, around the time of the controversial Presidential Elections of 2009 the mood of the film captures the unease of the country although Pitts is careful not to use his film as a political platform. We don’t know what Ali’s crime was that earned him a stint in prison but his hobby of rifle shooting might provide a clue, although again nothing is elaborated upon.

When Sara and Saba go missing the police are completely dispassionate and unhelpful, keeping Ali waiting for hours on end and asking him futile questions before explaining why they called him in. Again the viewer is forced to question why Sara was at the rally on behalf of Ali since he doesn’t seem intent on asking – was she merely in the wrong place at the wrong time or was she an insurgent rebel directly in the line of fire, the former suggesting a get out clause if it was a police bullet that killed her.

Ali – played by Pitts because his original actor was unable to fulfil his duty – has the greatest poker face you’ve ever seen, not letting even the death of his wife and daughter register externally, presuming he is fuming or torn up internally, but again we can’t tell. We suddenly, out of nowhere, get a flashback of Sara pleading with someone to make her pregnant because she lied to Ali while he was in jail, thinking the idea of becoming a father would tame him. To whom was she talking? Is Saba not Ali’s? Why would Sara lie? This is never explained either although one can assume that if this was Ali’s recollection it might go someway to explaining his inner turmoil.

Deciding the unhelpful police were guilty, Ali stands on the bridge which looms over a bust Tehran motorway and takes out two police officers in a police car with three well aimed shots. A few days later Ali is somehow captured by two policemen who inexplicably recognise him as he drives past them, despite it being a very foggy day, and give chase, ending up capturing Ali a roadside forest.

This is where things get interesting as we are treated to some dialogue for once. One policeman is a corrupt bully who shoots anyone who doesn’t like while his younger charge is an ex-army man forced to don the uniform and prefers to do things by the book. Ali becomes a spectator here as the two officers continually bicker and argue until the junior officer has an offer to put to Ali, ending the film with an unexpected and nicely played out twist – left open for interpretation, of course.

So, is this a bad film, a waste of time that should be avoided? Honestly, that depends on one’s tolerance for films that don’t spoon feed you every detail, or approach their subjects with subtlety and broad strokes of ambiguity. Even for someone who has viewed numerous films that buck the traditional conventions and narrative styles, this felt like a heavily censored script, in which all the salient parts were removed leaving the rest of the story to play out in an incoherent manner regardless of the damage these omissions would cause. The pace is also very slow, depriving a very emotional premise of much needed tension and any sense of sympathy or understanding Ali’s feelings and actions are lost with the absence of genuine drama.

Production wise, this is very well shot and the image composition is faultless throughout, and for a non-actor (although he did appear in last year’s Hollywood drama Argo) Pitts has a quietly commanding presence on screen and at least physically has proven he can carry a film. At least for its bleak and austere setting that much was successfully conveyed with little need for over emphasising.

The Hunter has all the ingredients to be a powerful and emotive drama but falls short on just about every level for this reviewer. By no means a bad film per se but one where the potential doesn’t live up to the expectations and while there is something compelling the viewer to stay watching to find out more, the delivery on that promise sadly never comes.

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