Jody Hill and Danny McBride’s long forthcoming The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter has something mildly subversive and cheeky it wants to say. The film, which reunites two-thirds of the creative team behind the legendary Eastbound & Down, has a bemused knowingness about its depiction of the good old boy network gone bad. And for those who already know the myth that is McBride’s alter-ego, Kenny Powers, what it ends up articulating will be deliciously ironic, or deliriously ignored altogether. However, for the uninitiated, what that amounts to is not nearly as clever or funny as its potential would suggest.
More or less a satire of hunting and gun culture, Whitetail is a film that took years to find its way to Netflix, and will undoubtedly bring in a wider demographic given a great, grinning turn by Josh Brolin in the lead role. Yet perhaps the reason it is premiering on the streaming service is because after the film’s early giddiness, it gets as lost in the woods as its central characters: a narcissistic hunter named Buck (Brolin), his poor abused pal and cameraman, Don (McBride), and Buck’s 11-year-old son who has absolutely no interest in growing up into a hunter, Jaden (Montana Jordan).
The admittedly great setup is that Buck is a guy who is most comfortable when he’s in the woods killing something; divorced and apparently unemployed, he can’t make much sense of the “real world,” but with a gun in his hand and a deer in his sights, his dominance on the food chain is empowering. That is why he has his buddy Don shoot hilariously half-assed videos of their hunts, which over the years have never risen above their seeming VHS quality presentations. Still, Buck has convinced himself that they will one day be important historical documents. (I am also vaguely aware these are mocking send-ups of videos by a hunter called Roger Raglin, for those in the know.)
Thus when it is time to shoot a new video—and more importantly when his son Jaden is getting awfully close with his wife’s new boyfriend (a cameoing pair of Carrie Coon and Scott McNairy)—Buck recruits the boy for his first hunt, even though the lad can barely be bothered to look up from his phone. Of course the video doesn’t go entirely as planned, especially as hijinks ensue involving deer, water rapids, and a father’s monstrous ego to make his son be just like him… and perhaps curb some of his son’s worst habits.
At its blood-on-the-knife core, Whitetail Deer knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and there is something admirable about that. In the opening scene, Brolin’s Buck is holding up a dead deer’s head to pose for a picture like a preening jackass before, a moment later, seeing a turkey and blowing its head literally off from the neck at point blank while McBride laughs off-screen. You’re either going to go with it or you’re not, and much like Eastbound & Down, it is entirely possible to loathe its protagonist or unironically idolize him. Either way, the entertainment value is miraculously the same.
In this vein, Buck himself is a sort of cousin to Kenny Powers. He’s more old-fashioned and has smaller ambitions—he just wants to hunt—bit his lack of perspective and colossal hubris causes him to make one selfish decision after another, with little in the way of redemption on his horizon. Intriguingly, McBride who co-wrote the script with Hill and John Carcieri, casts himself in the more sympathetic role as the cheerful friend who gets dragged along into the woods every year to be a glorified caddy (and test dummy) for his BFF.
Brolin and McBride’s chemistry goes a long way, as does the typical Jody Hill choice to never give in to sentimentality. Whenever the film looks like it will pursue a beat of sincere empathy for these knuckleheads, the script takes a dark turn with a vindictive mean streak. For an episode of Eastbound or Vice Principals, it’d be one of the slighter but still chuckle-worthy 30-minute ballads. Unfortunately, the film is stretched to just over 80 minutes, and it struggles mightily to get there.
The familiar narrative beats of fathers, sons, and expectations are too generic to pass muster in Hill and McBride’s wheelhouse, and thus the story, such as it is, amounts to little more than a thin collection of gags involving Brolin, McBride, and young precocious Jordan alone in the woods. A few of these land hard, but almost as many feel off, and with a narrative this thin, failing to hit the target is the difference between enjoyment and tedium.
Consequently, Whitetail Deer feels less apiece with Hill’s finer HBO work and more akin to fellow original Netflix comedies. While the streaming giant has had some massive success in the last year with dramas and horror, many of its laughers are amicable time-fillers that have been unburdened by the need to ever be memorable or demanding of full attention.
Be that as it may, I would be remiss to not mention that young Jordan is quite hilarious and charming in the film. Shot well before he ended up on The Young Sheldon, the kid has impeccable comic timing and can dish out the deadpan and snark against Brolin and McBride with ease. A better film might’ve made more out of that. As it is, like everyone else, he seems to just be enjoying the experience of shooting this out in the North Carolinian Appalachians. For Hill and McBride’s cult following, this will be enough, especially to stream, but I wish it didn’t throw away so much of its talented ammunition.
The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter will release on Netflix on July 6, 2018.