People have choices to make. You choose to shut out the world or face it. You choose to turn a blind eye or correct a wrong. The choice you make will change things forever.
In Hunting Lands, Frank Olsen had a choice to make after he came home from his time with the military. He came home from the war looking for solitude in the wilderness, but when he witnesses a man dumping his wife’s body in the woods near Frank’s home, fate sets him on a path that will change his life.
Marshall Cook plays Frank, a variation on the idea of God’s lonely man. He’s an articulate and philosophical Travis Bickle, but without the sociopathic tendencies. He’s chooses to be alone, set apart from the world but we don’t get a sense that he’s lonely. The similarities between Travis Bickle and Frank are in the fact that both men went to war and came back different than when they left. Neither can abandon the sense of mission.
Joe Raffa plays Lance Bennett, a man who did not go to war. A man who received more good in life than he earned or deserves, and yet feels cheated. He beats his wife and screws other women. The choice he made was to try and cover up his greatest sin; believing that he had killed his wife, he wrapped her in a tarp, drove her into the woods, and dumped her. She would not have survived had Frank not been nearby, witnessing Lance choosing a path he could not turn from.
Hunting Lands is a slow-burn character drama, full of tension, with few words spoken. Writer/director Zack Wilcox is able to set the story with a minimum amount of exposition or dialogue. So much of the story is told through Frank and Lance’s mannerisms as Frank stalks Lance around their small town. The setting is Michigan in the winter and the cinematography is very good. The forest scenes especially feel big and immersive, with a score that sucks you in.
I can see this film turning some off, because it requires patience and a quiet mind, much like deer hunting, which is how we’re introduced to Frank. We see his ritualistic preparations and the steady, sure way he sets off into the wilderness, the matter-of-fact way he field dresses a buck he takes down and continues the ritual by collecting saplings to make a sled to drag the animal home. He carries that over into his stalking of Lance. He gets to know his prey, he learns his route and habit habits.
One film that I kept thinking of is Ti West’s second film, Trigger Man, which is another slow-burn character piece that lulls you in with extended scenes of the mundane before letting you plummet in to bloodshed and violence. Even in its violence though, Hunting Lands remains measured, reserved, and steady, much like Frank himself, so that the film actually maintains his perspective from start to finish with no need to jump into the lives of the other characters beyond what Frank can observe.
With Hunting Lands, Wilcox is in no hurry to get you where he’s taking you. I found this hypnotic, but in the hands of a lesser storyteller, Hunting Lands could have been fallen apart by the halfway point. It will be interesting to see what Wilcox does with his next film; hopefully there will be a bit more meat on the bone for him to sink his teeth into.