Climate of the Hunter (2019), directed by Mickey Reece, proves once and for all that, while art is subjective, good storytelling isn’t.
The film follows the story of two sisters, Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and Elizabeth (Mary Buss), throughout several meals as they’re joined by a series of guests, including their charming and elusive friend, Wesley (Ben Hall). At first, he comes across as an eccentric writer who woos the two women—despite still being married—by reciting classic poetry and sharing verbose stories about his adventures around the globe. As the narrative progresses, Wesley increasingly becomes a source of suspicion and distrust for Alma, who believes there are more than a few clues suggesting that he’s a vampire. The movie concludes with Wesley’s death and the truth surrounding his vampiric nature still very much in the air.
It’s impossible to deny that Climate of the Hunter is nothing if not beautiful. The footage has been edited so that there’s a distinct grain to the film and, at times, even a vintage-looking quality to it which helps lend the work a ’70s aesthetic. There are enough well-placed lens flares to make J. J. Abrams jealous, along with dazzling computer-generated nebulas that crop up sporadically across the piece. The costuming is well executed too. Alma is dressed in bohemian gowns with her curly, red hair wild and untamed. Her sister Elizabeth, by contrast, is often in metallic, form-fitting gowns with her hair slicked back, her eyebrows invisible against her skin, her dark lipliner drawn to frame the outside of her mouth.
At times Climate of the Hunter feels like a stageplay thanks to Reece’s use of lighting, title cards, and voiceover describing the next meal that will be consumed (including “whole lobster, with jello salad, and diced yams”). In one notable scene, Alma is dressed in an oversized shag coat and sitting on a bed next to a man polishing a gun, a spotlight shining down on her (and her alone) as she pulls a long drag from her joint. It’s a gorgeous shot that could just as easily work on a stage as it does in the film, and one that stays with audiences after the movie has finished.
Unfortunately, a great film is more than just a collection of great shots. While Climate of the Hunter has its beautiful moments, there’s little there in the way of meaningful storytelling. All of the characters speak with an over-the-top vernacular, despite Welsey being praised as the only skilled orator. The dialogue only ever serves two purposes: to be an exposition dump, to sound as pretentious as possible without contributing much of anything. Early in the film, Alma tells Elizabeth that her small dog isn’t a regular canine but rather “he’s more of a philosophical dog.” What does that mean? What does that narratively serve? The point is brought up one more time, a few minutes later when she tells Wesley that the pet is a philosopher, and then dropped for the duration of the film.
Even the character dynamics, which should be interesting and move the story, fall flat. Elizabeth is perpetually giving Alma an unnaturally hard time despite knowing her sister is reeling from a divorce. Both women are shown competing for Wesley’s affection, now that his ailing wife has been institutionalized, but we never understand what makes him so charming (he’s mostly just annoying to listen to). Alma’s daughter and Wesley’s son are unbearable caricatures of children who hate their parents.
One of the few positives that the story does have to offer is its thematic exploration of appearances. The characters are perpetually worried about how everyone perceives them, and it’s an idea that’s especially highlighted during a scene in which Wesley has an allergic reaction to garlic. Despite fearing for his life and being sick, he’s mostly concerned with how Alma and Elizabeth see him and chastises his son for embarrassing him. This idea is also explored through Wesley’s relationships. He paints himself as a loving husband trying to cope with the institutionalization of his wife. In reality, he’s unhappily married and pursuing multiple women at once. There’s also the looming question of whether he is, or is not, a vampire.
Unfortunately, this theme is undercut by Reece’s dependence on the trope of women as competition. None of the women in this film work together, empathize with each other, or can be happy for each other. Often their biggest concern regarding their appearance is whether Wesley will still like them despite the ugly truth each woman is hiding.
Despite its flaws, Climate of the Hunter is ultimately worth watching insofar as a study into aesthetics. With beautiful lighting, costumes, and poetic language, this film will give most creatives something to enjoy (even if that’s not the plot). But if you’re someone who needs a film to have more action and story than monologues and poetic musings, maybe consider watching Dead Birds instead.
The Fantasia International Film Festival’s virtual event is composed of scheduled live screenings, panels, and workshops, taking place from August 20th to September 2nd, 2020. For more information, visit the Fantasia Film Festival website.