The family that slays together stays together is the surprisingly sweet message of this undoubtedly controversial film about a family’s hunting trip in the Minnesota woods.
A rites-of-passage tale seen through the eyes of Florence (the rather talented Bijou Abas), a 12-year-old on holiday with her mother and grandmother, aunt and uncle, it works hard to avoid the charge that it’s a screed on behalf of some gun lobby. So hard, in fact that it could be accused of protesting a touch too much.
This is a nice family – a sassy, funny matriarch (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding), her open, warm daughters and a helpful manly husband (played by writer/director Karl Jacob), with Florence the focus of attention because the family have deemed that it’s time for her to learn the mechanics of death – “It’s not easy to watch an animal die; but if they don’t die we can’t eat their meat,” explains Florence’s mother (Anna Klemp), a rationale unlikely to placate any vegans (though director/writer Jacob is a vegetarian, so this is no throwaway line).
Between playing with her toys, sitting in the communal sauna with her elders, learning how to use her great, great grandfather’s gun and the ins and outs of gutting and skinning a dead deer, Florence is also about to blossom into womanhood – she has her first period.
Blood recurs in this film. It’s on the girl’s hands when she realises she’s menstruating, a prefiguring of a later scene when an animal, a hunting knife and a girl on her own in the woods build towards the drama’s satisfying climax.
Meanwhile, haunting the fringes of the story, and the dreams of Florence, is Sweeney, the dead daughter of aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner) and uncle Craig (Jacob).
How did Sweeney die? Was it a hunting-related accident? Are guns in fact very dangerous? We know they are but Jacob leaves these questions hovering, an effective tactic that allows him to paint a warm portrait of a family indulging in an important ritual which at the same time acknowledges that there is a dark side.
And it really is warm – Kubilay Uner’s soundtrack is female vocals, pianos and strings, Benjamin Kasulke’s handheld cinematography is measured and relaxed, the performances have a loose semi-improvised feel and are suffused with a collaborative bonhomie, while Jacob’s directing and Pete Oh’s editing help develop a real feel for the passing of time.
If this all sounds a bit too nice, you might be brought up short by the sight of a pubescent girl opening a box of tampons, finding them too gross to use, then opting for a sanitary towel instead. It’s not something you see often in movies. Or the practice of hanging used sanitary towels in the trees as a lure for the deer. Or of Florence cutting what I think was a penis from a deer’s body.
A walkout of the sort that Lars Von Trier provokes at festivals would probably do this film a lot of good in terms of profile. But it isn’t that sort of film. It’s controversial rather than provocative, a gentle drama about a brutal subject, told with economy, on the downlow and with a sense of an eternal verity – we live, we die.
© Steve Morrissey 2018