‘The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter’ Review: Josh Brolin Is Too Serious for Jody Hill’s Latest
Love ’em or hate ’em, you know a Jody Hill project when you see it. His films and TV shows center on absurd, overly-cocky men (usually played by Danny McBride) who have dreams of greatness far beyond their abilities — think Foot Fist Way, Observe and Report and the recent (and brilliant) Vice Principals. The Hill and McBride combo has always been a recipe for hilarity…until now.
The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, which stars Josh Brolin as minor celebrity deer hunter Buck Ferguson, doesn’t feel like a Jody Hill movie in the slightest. That may be a good thing for those who typically find his humor too dark and cringe-inducing, but for longtime fans of Hill, who’s become something of an “awkward aficionado,” Legacy leaves a lot to be desired.
The film opens with a clip from an installment in Buck’s faux documentary series, in which his cameraman (McBride) follows him on various deer hunting trips. With a public access aesthetic, the series paints Buck as an all-American hero and the world’s preeminent (only?) exclusive hunter of the whitetail deer. But the latest chapter of the series is a special one: Buck will take his 12-year-old son Jaden on his very first hunting trip. Unfortunately, tween Jaden is more concerned with his phone and his girlfriend than with using some dumb old rifle to bag a deer in the middle of the woods.
What begins as Buck’s attempt to bond with his son — who lives with his mom (an offensively underutilized Carrie Coon) and her new boyfriend (Scoot McNairy) — quickly turns into a basic familial squabbling comedy. Jaden is your average teen kid: Obsessed with his phone, girls, and fast cars; when his mom’s boyfriend gives him an automatic assault rifle (yeah, I know), Jaden prefers the senseless weapon to the simple family heirloom Buck passes down to him.
I don’t know if Legacy is Jody Hill’s first real misfire or his first earnest attempt at making a “normal,” relatable family movie. McBride’s role as Don, the laid-back camera dude, is (unsurprisingly) the closest the film comes to feeling like a Jody Hill movie, but those moments of humor are sadly few and far, far between. Perhaps the reason why Legacy’s humor doesn’t quite work is the casting of Brolin, who’s just a little too serious for the absurd, painfully identifiable awkwardness of Hill’s mirror realities. That’s not a knock against Brolin as an actor — he’s always been fantastic — but the disparity between his performance and McBride’s might be the key to understanding Legacy’s failure.
Maybe what makes Hill’s movies and TV shows so damn funny and effective is the straight-faced line delivery from comedically-skilled men like McBride, Seth Rogen and Walton Goggins. Brolin isn’t exactly known as a Funny Man, and though he’s capable of being funny, his typically self-serious vibe doesn’t really gel with Hill’s style. Observe and Report and Vice Principals depict the pinnacle of cringe-inducing, awkward humanity; underachieving men whose insecurities are externalized as over-compensating cockiness. Whether it’s a mall security guard with bipolar disorder who desperately wants to prove his worth as a real-deal cop, or a lonely vice principal who will screw over anyone to win the pathetically coveted position of high school principal.
Hill, like fellow cringe-master Todd Solondz, always manages to find a surprisingly bizarre amount of pathos in these troubled white men — no small feat in a world of filmmakers raised on filmmakers like Kevin Smith, and tired “immature white dude can’t move past high school” narratives. But there’s something just so underwhelmingly basic about The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter. Even Montana Jordan, who plays Buck’s son Jaden, isn’t nearly as funny as the film wants him to be, though his scenes with McBride are far superior to those with Brolin.
It is with great sorrow that I write this review. As a longtime fan of Hill and his awkward auteurism, The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter was one of my most highly-anticipated films of the year; to learn that Netflix had snagged the distribution rights prior to SXSW was something of a disappointment — especially given recent acquisitions like Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox, which seem to indicate that Netflix is becoming the next direct-to-video platform (and that’s far from a compliment).
The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter is a major disappointment, but, as proven by two phenomenal seasons of Vice Principals, Hill is still more than capable of delivering the goods. Maybe he was just due for a misfire; I just hope he’s gotten it out of his system.