Between his work for HBO and infrequent full-length features, writer / director Jody Hill has carved out a unique spot for himself in the modern comedy landscape. Existing somewhere between the absurdist raunch of Adam McKay and the quiet character dramas of his pal and frequent collaborator David Gordon Green, Hill’s brand of humor is instantly recognizable and shockingly cruel. His last film, 2009’s Observe and Report, took themes concerning toxic masculinity concurrently explored in his television show Eastbound and Down to nasty extremes.
His latest, The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter (which begins streaming on Netflix tomorrow), isn’t as caustic as the filmmaker’s best work, but nevertheless focuses on a man-child whose ego is directly disproportionate with his power and influence. Where Observe’s deranged anti-hero Ronnie felt an outsized sense of importance as a mall cop, Legacy’s Buck Ferguson (a fantastic Josh Brolin) likewise thinks of his job as a televised whitetail deer hunter as one of the most sacred on Earth.
Buck is the star of the low-rent hunting series Buck Fever, shot by his loyal and mistreated sidekick Don (Danny McBride, a mainstay of Hill’s work). Don appears to be the only person Buck hasn’t driven out of his life with his rampant self-centeredness; his wife has already moved on and divorced him. In an attempt to both win the affections of his 12-year-old son, Jaden, and inject Buck Fever with some much-needed drama, Buck embarks on a hunting trip he hopes will culminate in Jaden shooting his first whitetail deer.
Of course, the ADHD-addled Jaden (newcomer Montana Jordan) has little interest in hunting, and the majority of the film’s humor comes from Buck’s exasperation towards his son’s reluctance and his desperation for Don to capture a moment of forced bonding between them. Like virtually all of Hill’s protagonists, Buck blindly charges towards his goals without any regard for others, and yet Brolin’s performance is more subdued than you might expect given the director’s previous work. Buck is an imbecile to be sure, but Brolin brings a quiet pain to the character that adds an unexpected tinge of melancholy to several scenes.
Legacy is unfortunately among Hill’s lesser work, and that can primarily be attributed to the unevenness of its first two acts. Observe, Eastbound and even his latest for HBO, Vice Principals, were unwavering glimpses into ugly sides of humanity, which made their mean-spirited humor all the more effective. That sadistic streak is absent here, and Hill clearly wants to show a gentler side this time around. Regardless, it’s a decision which leads to long stretches in the first two acts that are mostly devoid of laughs. A trio of strong performances from Brolin, McBride and Montana ultimately keep the film afloat during those times.
To be fair, there are instances of comedic brilliance here. The opening scene is a brief, lo-fi preview of Buck Fever, in which Buck gleefully blows the head off a turkey. It’s profoundly silly and wouldn’t feel out of place in a Tim and Eric sketch. McBride’s character also has a penchant for detailing his sexual exploits to anyone within earshot, and a scene where he shows Jaden several explicit photographs of his girlfriend is appalling in the best way.
Hill loves to put his characters in the wringer, only to give them a dramatic moment of redemption during the narrative’s climax, and this is where Legacy excels. The film’s culminating set piece is, frankly, quite glorious and possibly the most touching work in the director’s oeuvre, simultaneously providing catharsis for Buck and offering McBride (in fine form as the straight man) his most hilarious moments. Legacy may be minor Hill, but in the end, he’s the kind of comedic auteur whose every outing is worth hunting down.