‘Hunters’ Review: A Queasy, Stylized Act of Catharsis with Mythological Stakes

     February 29, 2020

In the first episode of the 1977-set Hunters, Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) and his curiously nicknamed friends Bootyhole and Cheeks (Caleb Emery and Henry Hunter Hall) walk out of a screening of Star Wars analyzing what they think of the film. Is a reading of the film as simple as “Darth Vader is Space Hitler leading Space Nazis?” Is George Lucas racist for coding his Space Hitler as a black man? Or are the sources and breeding grounds for hatred much more complicated, more intertwined with upbringings, more deserving of our empathy? Hunters, an Amazon Prime show about the art of killing real-ass Earth Nazis, constantly filters its POV of vigilante justice through the modern mythologies of Star Wars and superheroes, its characters convincing themselves they are performing objective acts of justice, its stylistic flourishes selling us a permanent fusion of reality and fantasy. And while I admire the hell out of the show for making such a blunt argument about such blunt hatred in such blunt times, it often yields a queasy, upsetting, unbalanced watch — both textually and subtextually, purposefully and, I suspect, inadvertently.

Jonah lives in New York with his Safta (Jeannie Berlin), a Holocaust survivor named Ruth. He gets by working shifts at a comic book store and dealing weed when he can. He hangs with his friends, low-key crushes on a girl named Carol (Ebony Obsidian), and tolerates anti-Semitic bullying as best he can. Until one night, his Safta is murdered in the middle of the night, and his world comes crashing down on him. While sitting Shiva for her, he meets Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), a wealthy man of mystery who seems to promise a form of justice not just for Ruth, but for all persecuted Jews. World War II may be “over,” but Nazis are embedded within every facet of America — even in the White House, as evidenced by the cheerfully “Southern” government worker Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker). Meyer introduces Jonah to a group of hunters, a diverse set of folks dedicated to finding these Nazis-in-hiding and delivering justice. Will this group of eclectic characters right these horrific wrongs? Can Jonah stomach the stomach-churning things he’ll have to do? And will a detective with a secret about her own identity (Jerrika Hinton) get in the way of it all?

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Image via Amazon Prime

For fans of genre storytelling, particularly those with a predilection toward exploitation/grindhouse cinema (I raise my hand), this all feels like catnip. And there are times in the first five episodes watched for review that these purely pleasurable modes of stylized storytelling click into place, rendering pieces of sweet popcorn justice for cartoonishly villainous Nazis. It feels good to hear Tiffany Boone yell at a subdued Nazi to “Wake the fuck up, bitch!” It feels good to see Pacino’s skills with a carefully hidden knife. It feels good to see all our hunters introduced in straight-out-of-the-cinema title cards, the show erupting in a surreal moment of fourth-wall breaking muckraking (Carol Kane being introduced just railing down folks with a damn machine gun is an image I didn’t know I needed, and am now beyond happy it lives in my brain forever). This show is perhaps the purest form of “genre storytelling as a tool to interrogate traumas,” with the characters within the show constantly framing their fight as the battle between good and evil (“I’ll write you a fairy tale. A new one. For you and me,” goes one line quite explicitly). I’m beyond thrilled to dive into a world with no subtlety, where real-life superheroes inspire the same, where real-life supervillains get the hell what’s coming to them — and frankly, I’m beyond thrilled as to how this POV could affect real-life change in the real world. Except…

…these modes of higher-pitched storytelling are smushed up against grimily realistic, truly harrowing, upsetting, and beyond-disturbing depictions of trauma, torture, and violence. Flashback images from concentration camps are common (a vile “human chessboard” sequence shook me to my core), and violent setpieces and acts of torture in the 1977-timeline are often constructed in mercilessly sparse long takes. Am I prudish? Am I ignoring the history of grindhouse, genre, and exploitation cinema’s explicit usage of traumatic imagery, the fact that “Nazisploitation” has existed as a subgenre since mere years after WWII? Am I having primal troubles with the actual point of the entire show — the idea that rewriting our traumas with blunt force and mythological recontextualization is alluring and necessary, but beyond difficult when jutted up against the real world (a point interrogated directly when Jonah starts to have doubts about the hunters’ vicious tactics)? Do I… just not want to watch this? And isn’t that bad? Shouldn’t we all be forced to reckon with these traumas, to have our faces rubbed in what the worst of humanity can do, to directly correlate it to modern-day offenses and do something about it?

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Image via Amazon Studios

It’s beyond impressive that a TV show with the elevator pitch “Pacino and company kill some friggin’ Nazis” can get under my bones and into my craw this effectively. And I will always go to the bat for redemptive, interrogative genre stories from marginalized groups — especially those that are equally interested in entertainment, examination, and the knowledge that the two can and perhaps should be related (as will executive producer Jordan Peele and his Monkeypaw Productions, responsible for the show’s journey to Amazon). But I do think creator David Weil‘s POV stumbles across this tightrope more times than it should. His dialogue is often way more purple than it needs to be — for every “Wake the fuck up, bitch!” I love, there are around four overly sophomoric, crude for crude’s sake pieces of “colorful language” that I found tired and trite. The aforementioned pieces of fourth-wall pop-surrealism sometimes feel destructively intrusive — like they were copied and pasted in from another take on the show, without an attempt at satisfying cohesion. Every single performer is doing outstanding work at giving themselves up to this material and selling it hard (mark my words, Pacino’s gonna win the Emmy), but Weil sometimes sells these performers out — I love seeing Josh Radnor cut loose, but to be billed as a “master of disguise” and then literally never once disguise himself to solve his problems feels crinkly.

In some ways, the queasy imbalance at the core of Hunters reminded me of Watchmen, another show interested in genre storytelling as a tool of coping with trauma in an alternate history. That show also experiments with its formal techniques, shows us horrific violence, and laces everything with an acidic sense of humor — but it all feels precise, carefully constructed, under the same umbrella. Hunters‘ usage of many of these same techniques sometimes feels scattershot, slapped together carelessly, a rainstorm of ideas without the want of a unifying umbrella. The show is still worth your time and mental energy — and its fifth episode ends with some character twists that will make me keep watching — but be warned. Blunt times call for blunt stories — and this story is interested in making blunt impacts in every single direction.

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Image via Amazon Prime

Rating: ★★★★

Hunters is now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.

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