Other directors might have tried to make a grittier adaptation of the novel Wild Pork And Watercress, written by the best-selling New Zealand author, Barry Crump. But rather than try to emulate Crump’s spare, masculine storytelling, writer-director Taika Waititi gently bends the story’s tone to his own quirky sensibility.
The result is another film about misunderstood outsiders from the filmmaker behind such brilliantly offbeat comedies as Eagle Vs Shark and What We Do In The Shadows; in Waititi’s hands, Hunt For The Wilderpeople becomes an eccentric outdoors adventure with welcome splashes of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s like a blend of Waititi’s 2010 hit Boy and 1982 Stallone joint, First Blood – with maybe a bit of Harold And Maude and Thelma And Louise thrown in for good measure.
Julian Dennison plays Ricky Baker, a disadvantaged, overweight city kid who’s sent to live with a pair of foster parents in the middle of nowhere. Julian soon forges a bond with the blunt yet kind Auntie Bella (Rima Te Wiata), but remains firmly on the wrong side of his foster uncle, Hec (Sam Neill), who comes lumbering out of the bush with a rifle in his hand and a dead boar slung over his shoulders. Ricky likes Tupac Shakur and writing sweary haikus. Uncle Hec just wants to be left alone in his shed. It’s hardly an ideal pairing.
A series of unfortunate events see Ricky and Hec stuck out in the hilly badlands of New Zealand with a gung-ho social worker, Paula (Rachel House), a bunch of redneck hunters and, incongruously, what appears to be a SWAT team on their trail. Amid all the adversity and flailing attempts at survival, Ricky and Hec gradually form a reluctant bond.
As in Waititi’s earlier films, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is distinguished by a genuine affection for his eccentric characters. Sam Neill’s initially unrecognisable as Uncle Hec – for a brief moment, your humble writer thought he was the erstwhile Independence Day star Randy Quaid – but a captivatingly human performance soon emerges from behind Neill’s huge, wiry beard. There’s a believable chemistry between Neill and Dennison, who’s disarmingly unaffected as a wannabe gangster who really just wants a hot water bottle and a hug.
Then again, Waititi is unfailingly adept at balancing his moments of off-kilter humour – such as his cameo as a callous priest, or Rhys Darby’s brief role as a saucer-eyed survivalist – with gentle character beats and scenes of unexpected dramatic heft. The writer-director also stages a couple of stirring action sequences (variously involving vehicles and aggressive animals).
In visual terms, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is at its best in the first act, where Waititi and cinematographer Lachlan Milne create some beautifully lit interiors and night scenes of characters silhouetted against empty skies. The last two-thirds don’t quite reach the same heights in terms of composition – perhaps because of the vigours of shooting outdoors on a budget – but there are still occasional flourishes here and there, such as a time-lapse shot where events seem to overlap one another.
What remain consistently charming are the characters. Even a relatively minor player, like the social worker who seems to think she’s Tommy Lee Jones’s US Marshall from The Fugitive, is rendered immediately likeable thanks to the quality of the writing and acting (“I’m the Terminator and you’re Sarah Connor,” Paula yells at Ricky; “the Sarah Connor from the first film, before she could do chin-ups!”).
Even as Waititi’s comedy spirals off on strange digressions, Hunt For The Wilderpeople remains grounded in the flesh-and-blood reality of Ricky and Uncle Hec. They’re strange, they’re flawed, but that’s what makes them so endlessly watchable.