New Zealand’s Taiki Waititi (soon to fulfill the all-too-common-place indie director trajectory by helming the third Thor film) continues to outfox basically every comedy director in the game just a year after his What We Do in the Shadows took the cinematic underworld by storm. Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t as gut-busting nor as defiantly misanthropic as the earlier film, but it’s the better film, owing largely to its more fungible tonality and willingness to introduce a sense of outsider melancholica to Shadows’ aloof sensibility of quotidian insanity. Waititi doesn’t hunt down every joke opportunity with extreme prejudice. Instead, he creates a fundamentally depressed mood piece and then proceeds to nick and graze the attitude with comic filigrees that hurt like paper-cuts: small, but all so piercing, and stubbornly refusing to heal up as the wounds fester and grow over time. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is not unlike something Bergman or Malick might direct if they got really high during filming.
Which strikes me as a fallacy now that I realize mid-sentence that I just described David Gordon Green to a T, except Wilderpeople out-Greens Green. This story of Maori child Ricky (Julian Dennison) given to a New Zealand Bush resident Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) by New Zealand Child Services bears Green’s sense of unvarnished sadness and his semi-libertarian streak, but not in the American way co-opted by neo-cons. Anarchic, you might call it, but not in the “oh this comedy is so zany and anarchic sense” either. When Bella passes away almost immediately of natural causes, Ricky is left in the care of her husband Uncle Hec (Sam Elliot), who is much worse than even his pernicious, percussive name suggests. He hates children but takes a kind of amused fascination to Ricky’s bouillabaisse of childish incompetence and hyper-awareness. It’s an impromptu and less than ideal relationship, but neither has anyone else in the world. And Child Services, requesting Ricky’s return now that he lacks the “suitable” parental advisory of Bella, try to see to it that our two protagonists remain alone.
Which prompts a semi-episodic (in fact literally episodic if the Wes Anderson-cribbed title cards are taken into account) chase film when Ricky and Hec(tor) abscond to the Bush with Child Services in tow. The situation is “pressured”, obviously, but that doesn’t dispossess Waititi (who also wrote the screenplay) from slowing everything down to a simmer for a walkabout in the oddball eccentricities of life on the run and the culture of the Bush, which Waititi exposes with endearing affection that doesn’t approach fetish or condescension. The film has a certain semi-abstracted, nasty-minded children’s book sort of vibe, owing partially due to a flip-book style narrative that is pleasingly anecdotal and unstressed. On one hand, the story – with minor alteration – could have been passed-down around a campfire in 1800, and on the other, it has the spontaneous elan of something being sketched in, actively and unfinished and spun-out for the first time, as we watch it.
The comedy is also bone-dry in the best way, warping this particular bowel of cinematic down-home cooking into a more pungently acrid concoction. The tone of the humor gives the film its sting in the tail, and the aura of dispossessed loneliness suggests a film just aware enough of its own cinematic mortality to not feel like a puff piece. The overall attitude is comfort food in the time-honored, hallowed tradition of buddy comedy, but Waititi perverts it here into a nastier creature, like sugar mixed with hot sauce. Or motor oil. There’s a murderous investment in laconic monotony stretched to the boiling point where social abjection and unabated misanthropy become a mordant rumination on an accidental father-son relationship. The film etches out a minor-key abode at the point where internal discomfort becomes an uncertain partnership, even a tender bond of mutual loneliness. At times, the film evokes an acid-brewed parody of cute-coddled independent cinema where mismatched people find solace in one another. They do find solace, of course, but even at the end of it all, Ricky and Hec are still uncertain people cast adrift without the promise of stability.
Boasting a quasi-anarchic political bent thrumming with the life-force of a free-wheeling filmic style and narrative structure, the film benefits from an appealing lost-in-the-bush disposition, a perceptive and receptive uncertainty about where the film is going that only emancipates it from foregone conclusions of both the narrative and tonal senses. It’s obviously anti-institutional – the government reps are nothing but broad caricature – but what really wins out is the anti-institutional nature of the tone which confounds dictums about appropriate mood. Even the droning, running-around-in-circles sensibility of the film where the characters learn to tolerate one another without actually liking one another playfully rebukes the assumption that character “growth” and “change” are essential, foundational ingredients for cinema.
I wish, admittedly, that Waititi had Green’s eye for the newfound serenity and piquant, otherworldly vibe of the should-be-a-knockout location. The Land Down Under’s seeming primordial eternalness – as though it exists outside of time rather than bound up in it – has been conjured many times in cinema, dating all the way to foundational Australian films like Walkabout, Wake in Fright, Picnic at Hanging Rock (one of the greatest films of all time), and of course the Mad Max films. The characters, not the location, are the centerpieces here; frankly, the Bush never actually feels like a place with a character all its own, and the unruliness of the two protagonists never quite make up for the sense that they could just walk a minute over to the left and find themselves in the suburbs. They’re wilderpeople, sure, but I’m not sure this is a wilderness. Waititi is not a visualist enough to command a respect for the untamed, undomesticated qualities of the wild.
Still, the obvious odd-couple centering the film seals the deal. Julian Dennison is an astounding find as Ricky, his baby-faced doughiness belying a diminished self of sense-worth and a stark capacity for cutting social observation and self-possessed maturity. A filthy papa bear like Sam Elliot, a mad-scientist-mutated with a rattlesnake, is his natural antithesis but also not dissimilar to himself. Neill is an ideal interpreter for the character, a fallen man rebirthed. Without explaining the relationship into an early grave, the screenplay is permissive to the space the characters need to feed off of one another and advance their embattled relationship through glances and odd, inhuman bodily noises. With an appealingly folkloric disposition, Wilderpeople is a bad egg of a film, but with a confectionary center.