Rated: 3.5 / 5
One of the most underrated movies out there. I honestly don’t get the hate people have for this. The hatred isn’t because the camerawork is bad, or that the acting is bad, or that things look cheap (aside from this brief moment with Tommy Lee Jones going down a waterfall). Hell, it’s not even because the action is bad (the action is top notch). It’s because this film is viewed as shallow. That it attempts to make up for its lack of story (a significant one anyway) and character depth with action and tension. A frustration born from believing the film should be greater than what it actually is, as opposed to something like your average slasher film which never had any high aspirations to begin with.
Bullshit! This film is deeper and more complex than people give it credit for! And even if it wasn’t, the hypocrisy of these criticisms astounds me. These same hypocritical motherfuckers will eat up the next sloppy fast food Disney/Marvel films and ask for seconds. Films that are every bit as shallow and action-oriented, containing all the faults they proclaim this film to have. And yet this isn’t good enough? Maybe this film just needed more CG, longer fight scenes with people less able to get hurt from them, more unrealistic physics-defying moments, and 30+ minutes in length to pad out the runtime.
Or they just don’t get it. This film deals with heavy subject matter that is seemingly blunt on the surface, but the complexities lie in the details and the very subtle character interactions.
It’s about a man who received special training to become a highly skilled killing machine, who can kill with guns, with knives, or in hand-to-hand combat. And the shellshock and trauma that drives him to paranoia and insanity that makes him become a threat to the civilian populace he seemingly fought to protect and serve under the military. So then he has to be put down like a rabid dog by one of the very men who trained him.
The moral lesson being how it’s easy to train one to handle physical pain and obstacles, but highly difficult to teach them to handle the mental strain (assuming that would even be possible). Hence the government doesn’t care that much for the troops they have trained to kill, and how this can blowback upon the homeland. They create monsters to fight other monsters, and become surprised when they realize they can’t control the monsters these men have become, and thus need to have these monsters slain.
It’s not anything new per-se, but it’s about how the story is told. And if you look deep enough, and think about it enough, there’s plenty going on with this subject matter to cast shades of grey all across it. For example, it’s stated that Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro’s character) butchered some hunters and hikers in the middle of the woods. Yet it is clearly shown in the latter incident that the two “hunters” were clearly going after Aaron with the sole intention of killing him off; because they are mercs hired by the government to do so (or this is just their assignment for their regular special ops job, as sweepers). Later on in the film, another few spooks attempt to kill Aaron by other means. They state it’s because he started killing people off-duty, but it may also be because he knows classified information because he was sent on classified missions, thus knows things the government (or shadow government) wouldn’t want him to know. Thus he has justification for being paranoid that people (sweepers) are out to get him, and thus may have been in the right, simply fighting out of self defense, when he killed all those people earlier that he has become wanted for. All he was doing was following mission orders until bad press over an incident Aaron caused lead the Department of Defense to decide on eliminating Aaron.
But on the other hand, we don’t know for sure if the initial kills he made in the woods, prior to the two hunters we see, were sweepers (it’s stated later on that Aaron killed 4 hunters). They may have been civilians for all we know. There’s the issue of Aaron killing not just a specific target, but his entire family; and it’s not clear if Aaron is right in stating that they needed to be killed because they were also soldiers who had guns, or if they were just civilians (innocent family members) who shouldn’t have been killed in the first place. We also don’t know for sure if those other spooks who intended to poison him wanted to do so more because he became a loose cannon, or for other reasons that may or may not be justified. Regardless, his paranoia increases more and more as the film goes on, with how he eventually turns on L.T. (Tommy Lee Jones’ character). How he speaks regarding how humans treat animals. That he states “they” will burn his girlfriend’s house to the ground.
Both interpretations are plausible. But regardless of how one views Aaron, in the end, his story is to be viewed as a tragedy. Whether he became a loose cannon early on or not, whether his paranoia was justified early on or not, whether he did his killings up to the two hunters with reasonable cause or not, it’s never explained clearly. Either way, he does wind up too far gone mentally in the end. But how could he not? He wanted help in his mental anguish, but no one would give it to him, save for the girlfriend he had for a while, which wasn’t enough as he couldn’t talk about his work with her.
Consider the beginning of the film, when we’re introduced to L.T. He is using his tracking/hunting skills for a benevolent purpose, tracking a wolf that had been snared and injured. He patches it up, sets it free, and lashes out at the hunters who set that trap. Contrast that with him tracking/hunting Aaron (who used a snare on a hunter hunting him). L.T. had benevolent intentions because he didn’t want to kill him. But there’s less sympathy and understanding about it. There’s no hunters that he lashes out against for trapping Aaron in this pit of paranoia and shellshock that Aaron can’t pull himself out from. There’s no calm re-assurances like those he gave to the wolf. L.T. prefers to keep things simple, not knowing the “why” of situations he has to deal with; it’s simpler just to deal with them and not think about it. Which is why he doesn’t even consider contemplating why Aaron did what he did, and is the way he is.
Sure one could say there are two types of wolves for this metaphor, the normal ones that just need to be set free, and the rabid ones that need to be put down. Some could argue that Aaron is a rabid one. I say it’s debatable if he’s that far gone for the first half of the film. He isn’t at a point of no return yet, although the Department of Defense makes that rather difficult. Once he frees himself from imprisonment and attempted assassination (or more accurately, when it becomes clear that there’s no way he can be properly tried and prosecuted due to, uh, special interest groups), that’s when I’d see he finally went down a road that he can’t come back from. Yet it’s not entirely his fault either. He is one who is hunted, and who is trying to stay alive. When regular forces (ie non-government spooks, such as police) start relentlessly hunting him, and they start to become casualties, there’s no other outcome in the end but for him to get killed one way or another. Unlike those far-fetched Jason Bourne flicks (I never was the biggest fan of those, although The Bourne Supremacy isn’t half bad), no happy ending is possible when there’s that much opposition is against you. Especially when you are trained to attempt survival alone, without any friends or allies.
There is a moment when L.T., the one person Aaron considered to be a friend, shows a brief moment of wanting to try and resolve things with Aaron near the end, right before Aaron slashes his hand. The expression on his face shows that he has sympathy for him, just before Aaron slashes his hand. And at the end of the fight, one thing happens that’s significantly different from all the other deaths in the film. L.T. shows pity and compassion for the man he killed, sorry that he had to do it. Every other death in the film was primarily done with extreme prejudice. Aside from the first man we see Aaron kill, as there Aaron looks a bit disturbed by the act (contributing to his mental trauma), even though he performs it meticulously. In fact, the film begins with a bunch of Serbians committing a massacre in a city, for reasons indicated at being revenge for a past transgression a generation ago, with the commander saying, “They fucked our mothers. Now we fuck theirs.” A cycle of violence, metaphorically shown with the Oregon police hunting Aaron during the latter portion of the film out of similar vengeance in retaliation for him killing two of their own.
Which ties into the lines at the start and end of the film, regarding that story of God commanding Abraham to kill his son for him, not because his son did anything bad, but just to show that Abraham is willing to sacrifice what is most precious to him, what he loves most, for God (book of Genesis in the Bible). The film plays it very loose with what it takes from this story, but the idea of it in this film’s context is that Abraham wasn’t going to kill with hatred, but with sorrow. A necessary violent act. Killing not for hatred or pleasure, but because it’s a terrible necessity. A metaphor for war itself, that the enemy must not be killed out of hatred, but with sadness and remorse. That way conflict is more likely to end with far fewer grudges held. And yet, it is this very remorse over the act that leads into the mental trauma that causes Aaron’s psychological descent. Some can’t handle feeling remorse over their acts.
Likely the reason why L.T. chooses not to consider the “why” of things, so that he can avoid potential mental anguish. Yet this remorse does eventually cause him to reads Aaron’s letters at the end, letters showing that he was crying out for help over his anguish. Letters that L.T. tosses into the fire when he’s done with them. Why? Possibly to try and put Aaron out of his mind. Possibly because he didn’t want to be reminded of him anymore. Possibly because there was nothing left for him to do on that subject. Which begs the question on whether or not he should have been (or should be) more understanding and remorseful over Aaron. Does the sight of the wolf at the end indicate that he won’t be able to get Aaron out of his mind anymore than Aaron could get the war trauma out of his? Or is it just an indication for him that some wolves can be saved, while others couldn’t? It’s all open to interpretation.
Ultimately, I don’t think the film fully achieved what it set out to do in the most optimal and efficient manner, at least not in a way to be considered a masterpiece. But it did do it well enough to be a solid film. Plus the CQC between Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro are some of the best, and most realistic, fight scenes that have been done in a film.