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Josh Brolin's New Netflix Comedy Has Loads of Guns. Is It OK to Laugh?

Jody Hill has heard the criticism. The 41-year-old director behind The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter, now streaming on Netflix, has built a career out of making smoke-black comedies about self-deluded, deeply egocentric blowhards whose outward aggressions border on sociopathy. Danny McBride—Hill’s muse, writing partner and lifelong friend—has played three (the other was portrayed by Seth Rogen in the cult hit Observe and Report). 

First, there was Fred Simmons, the lecherous Taekwondo sensei from their breakout film, 2008's The Foot Fist Way. Then came Kenny (motherfuckin’) Powers, the dickish ex-MLB pitcher who helped make HBO’s Eastbound & Down one of the most incendiary comedies of the past decade. And last year, Neal Gamby, the obnoxious high school administrator in Eastbound’s spiritual sequel Vice Principals, announced himself as Hill’s most controversial creation yet. Gamby’s casual racism and not-so-casual sexism proved a tough litmus test for Hill’s biggest fans, and a potent catnip for his fiercest critics. All of these men are cruel, even vicious, toward anyone in their immediate orbit. And in an era when the actions of cruel (often white) men dominate the news cycle, laughing at the general callousness of Hill’s characters can be a deeply unnerving experience.

“I like anti-heroes, and I don’t push the envelope just to push envelope,” Hill says about his appetite for exploring the psyches of terrible men. “It’s kind of fun to challenge people and challenge yourself, and write something like that. Sometimes, you can show bad people. I don’t think everybody needs to be Boy Scouts.” That ethos certainly holds true in Whitetail. Once again, Hill zeroes in on a pair of insecure men who wear their masculinity like a badge of honor and as a distraction from some very serious societal shortcomings.

This time, McBride takes a backseat to Josh Brolin, who stars as Buck Ferguson, a D-list, recently divorced, camo-clad buck hunter who embarks on an outing through the N.C. backwoods with his estranged son and his foul-mouthed assistant, played by—who else?—McBride. Though the hunting trip is intended as a father-son bonding exercise, things derail as Buck begins to realize that his smartphone-obsessed son is not quite cut from the same all-American cloth as his father.
Though Hill’s mean-spirited comedy is well-accounted for here, it clocks in at a much softer frequency than his previous outings, as Buck is a far more redemptive figure than his predecessors. Sure, his core values may be steeped in a bygone era, but few things are more endearing than watching a father trying to connect with his son. So, instead of honing in on Hill’s treatment of toxic masculinity, Whitetail’s critics have aimed their crosshairs at what could be construed as the film’s flippant treatment of guns. Any movie that extols the virtues of hunting is bound to include the odd rifle, but one scene in particular—in which Buck’s son pulls out an automatic assault rifle gifted to him by his stepdad—left some feeling squeamish. When I mention that audiences might find questionable the loaded image of a 12-year-old boy using a military-grade weapon for sport, Hill shoots back.

“I’m not too worried about it,” he says. “I don’t think we make a statement on guns, and this certainly doesn’t promote school shootings.” Despite having grown up in the South, Hill was never exposed to hunting as a child, which meant that he had to do a lot of research to find out what makes people tick who kill their dinner. “Most of the hunters that I was reading about really respect animals and nature, and because they’re actually taking their lives themselves, they really try and eat the complete animal. That’s really important to them."

I continue to press Hill about his decision to include an assault rifle in the film, given its inextricable link to the country’s school shooting epidemic, and he doubled down, explaining that he had no desire to chime in on America’s gun-control debate with this film. “The movie is about the frustration this man feels as he tries to pass down hunting to his son," he says. "We really tried to be careful about being willy-nilly about showing and throwing guns around. There’s definitely not a message in it, in terms of pro-gun or anti-gun. It’s not a political movie at all.”
When you start drawing lines on which people are good and which people are bad, that’s when you start getting into trouble.
That Hill has such a nonchalant attitude towards hunting should come as no surprise. He’s spent his career exploring the core tenants of male Southern identity, one of which is using guns to kill really big animals. But in the age of Trump, some other, much uglier aspects of the South have crept to the fore. If anything, Hill’s work, Whitetail included, helps humanize a group of people who have largely been demonized by liberals. Hill, however, doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t know if I have a grand statement on the South,” he says, somewhat defiantly. “I think, whether it’s the South or North, people have different opinions on everything in life. When you start drawing lines on which people are good and which people are bad, as opposed to approaching each person as an individual, that’s when you start getting into trouble.”

Instead, Hill insists that his fascination with Southerners comes down to an adherence to one of his vocation’s core principles: writing what you know. “Just growing up there, hunting was a part of the world, and obviously part of my history,” he explains. “But at the same time, at least when I first started making films, it was a world that we hadn’t seen a lot on TV and in movies. I wanted to do something that people I grew up around can relate to. This movie doesn’t talk down to them. It’s not just redneck jokes. We really tried to make this a universal message.”

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