The William Friedkin Paranoid-Thriller Double Bill
Two overlooked classics from the great director
Read Max, as a newsletter, is about many things: the future, the technology industry, weird guys online, my personal neuroses, etc. But one of the most important things it’s about is action movies, because insofar as this newsletter is about action movies it means that when I watch action movies I am being productive.
And, because this newsletter is about action movies (defined broadly), that means it should pay some kind of tribute to the director William Friedkin, who died this week at 87. Friedkin is best remembered for The Exorcist and The French Connection, and to most people these are really the only movies he’s remembered for: The sub-headline for his obituary in the Times--communicating something like the conventional wisdom about his career--reads “He made his name with two of the biggest box-office hits of the 1970s. But despite some later successes, he never regained his early acclaim.”
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Griffin Dunne got very mad at this claim on Instagram, and even if it is a narrowly accurate assessment, I have to agree in spirit: Exorcist and French Connection are justifiably iconic pictures, but it’s a shame that so much of the rest of his work is lost in the shadow they cast. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Friedkin directed some of the finest genre pictures to come out of Hollywood, and also a decent amount of crap, and also a bunch of opera productions, for some reason.
There is, to be fair, a healthy and growing appreciation for some of Friedkin’s other masterpieces: Sorcerer, a tense thriller about mercenary truckers transporting dynamite across Colombia, was a huge bomb on release (it infamously opened against Star Wars) but is now so beloved, at least among the kind of people who follow Instagram accounts dedicated to “director fits,” that it has its own viral t-shirt. Cruising, a 1980 serial-killer thriller in which Al Pacino goes undercover in the world of gay S&M clubs, has been quasi-rehabilitated from its reputation as homophobic sensationalism; it is, if nothing else, a rich text, and Friedkin’s DVD commentary is legendary. And To Live and Die in L.A., a particular favorite of mine, is just a straightforwardly fantastic action movie about Modern Monetary Theory.
Still, I want to specifically recommend two movies that have been generally overlooked even in more expansive memorials: Bug (2006) and The Hunted (2003). One, because they’re both pretty great little movies, even if they don’t quite hit the heights of Sorcerer. Two, because they’re both actually available at the moment on streaming platforms, unlike nearly any other Friedkin besides Blue Chips.1 And three, because despite their formal and substantive differences they share some themes and moods, and so form an interesting pairing: a western-paranoiac double bill.
The Hunted (2003)
The Hunted was well-enough reviewed when it came out, but it wasn’t a huge hit and I think it’s sort of been lost in the collective memory as a forgettable mash-up of First Blood (the first Rambo movie) and The Fugitive. To some extent this is a fair summary; after all, the movie does feature Tommy Lee Jones hunting down a special-forces veteran in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Jones plays L.T. Bonham, a military survival instructor living in remote British Columbia, called in to assist the F.B.I. with an investigation into the brutal, ritualistic murder of two hunters in Oregon. Bonham quickly realizes that the killer is a former student, a Delta Force operator named Aaron Hallam (played by Benicio Del Toro), and is forced to pursue Hallam and fend off intervention from mysterious spooks in trench coats.
So, yeah, it is kind of U.S. Marshals: Rambo Edition. But I think there are a few important things that set it apart from its antecedents. One is, obviously, Friedkin’s impeccable thriller direction. The script to this movie has to be about 70 pages long--the whole back half is one long chase--and Friedkin manages the action beautifully, blocking and editing to maximize tension and comprehension equally.
Another is Jones’ performance, which is more than just a recapitulation of his turn in the Fugitive: He is, of course, still Tommy Lee Jones, but Bonham is nervy, anxious around people and in cityscapes, always in motion, almost on tiptoes (Jones shows more physical grace here than I realized he had) and impossibly sad. I would say Friedkin “coaxed” this performance out of TLJ but based on what the extremely funny story he tells in the video below at around 23:44 about directing Jones and Del Toro I’m not sure he would agree:
But I think what really sets The Hunted apart is its vibe: paranoid, dark, and little bit frightening. Besides First Blood and The Fugitive, the other thing I thought of while watching it recently was The X-Files, with which it shares Pacific Northwest locations, unfamiliar actors in trench coats, and the kind of truly paranoid sensibility that I think only relatively low-budget film can actually achieve. Unlike John Rambo and Richard Kimble, Aaron Hallam is an ambiguous figure, obviously sick but obviously wronged. “Did you see their scopes?” he asks Bonham. “They weren’t hunters, L.T. They were sweepers.” Bonham ignores the question; he knows better than to even ask it. Later, he rushes into Hallam’s interrogation when Hallam starts listing the code names of military operations to warn him: “You’re talking about shit that never happened. They’re recording this, bud.”
The Hunted was Friedkin’s best movie since To Live and Die in L.A., a triumphant return to form after a more-or-less lost decade-and-half of forgettable TV movies and mediocre thrillers. Three years before The Hunted he’d made Rules of Engagement, a competently made but deeply vile military courtroom drama whose main idea is that evil lib government bureaucrats are framing our troops for war crimes, which, by the way, they should be allowed to commit anyway. Arguably The Hunted shares with Rules of Engagement ostensible concerns about the psychological effects of war, and the burdens placed on American soldiers asked to participate in the U.S. imperial project. But where Rules of Engagement is melodramatic, self-righteous, and defensive--pure propaganda--The Hunted is grimy, fearful, and tragic.
Also, there’s a sick knife fight.
There are no knife fights in Bug, at least not proper ones, but there is a lot of low-budget paranoia. Friedkin’s follow-up to The Hunted, made three years later, follows the evolving relationship between Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a waitress living in an Oklahoma motel, and Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a Gulf War vet who is kind and complimentary and also might be AWOL and, also, insists he is plagued by blood-sucking aphids.
Where The Hunted makes great use of outdoor spaces and place-to-place movement, Bug rarely leaves the dingy Oklahoma motel room where Agnes, and eventually Peter, live. (Tracy Letts’ screenplay is based on his 1996 play of the same name, and it sometimes feels a bit stagy.) This is really much closer to The Exorcist than it is to basically any other movie Friedkin has directed: The drama here is in the ratcheting intensity of Agnes and Peter’s shared convictions, as the motel room gains more spools of hanging flypaper and Peter’s sores get larger.
For this kind of thing you could hardly ask for a better actor than Michael Shannon, who originated the role on the stage and who Friedkin apparently fought to keep over Lionsgate’s objections. He is, in that particular Michael Shannon way, an destabilizing melange of shy, charming, and terrifying, and the final scene, in a room wrapped with foil, is about as memorable and disturbing as anything in Friedkin’s oeuvre.
The play was written in 1996, and like The Hunted, with its northwestern survivalists, Bug’s vision of conspiracy culture is rooted in ‘90s contexts: Tim McVeigh, Ted Kaczinski, unmarked helicopters. But Bug is notable in its lurid fascination with interplay between paranoia and illness, and the insistence (or knowledge) that something is deeply wrong inside you that needs to get out.
Not that you shouldn’t spend the money to rent or buy Sorcerer or To Live and Die in L.A., obviously!