I finally watched 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople last night. It was written and directed by Taika Waititi, whose screenplay was based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Oh, it’s a sweet film. Funny, astute, sad, and serious without schmaltz. Casting was superb with Sam Neill as Hec and Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker (I note Dennison is in the Deadpool sequel). Of course there are many actors from Thor Ragnarök, that other little project that saw a bit of success for Waititi. The setting truly was majestical. The score and music were perfect, and the camera work was both intimate and epic, with the use of ‘artistic’ shots and techniques effective in moving the narrative. I liked the use of the chapters too. There was so much to love.
What distracted me from loving this film altogether was the event that sets the main characters Hector and Ricky Baker, on their escapade in the remote New Zealand bush.
If you have seen the film you know what it is. If you haven’t, I’ll let you guess.
If you guessed the film used the death of a mother figure as the inciting incident then you win….a deep sigh that confirms that yes this is correct..FOR THE ONE HUNDRED MILLIONTH TIME. Can we do away with killing women off just to inspire men’s adventures?
Women as signifiers
Women in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople represent civilisation, domesticity, and government. All of them are linked to nurturing. Bella is the farmer, a woman who has no children, who rescues dogs, Hector and Ricky Baker to form her family. She is the heart of their home: her awkward warmth symbolised by the hot water bottle she gives Ricky. She is the Earth Mother Demeter figure. She is contrasted to by Paula from Child Services who represents Government. She treats Ricky not like a vulnerable teen who needs care, but as a criminal, a problem to be fixed.
Ricky Baker : I’ll never stop running!
Paula : Yeah, and I’ll never stop chasing you – I’m relentless, I’m like the Terminator.
Ricky Baker : I’m more like the Terminator than you!
Paula : I said it first, you’re more like Sarah Connor, and in the first movie too, before she could do chin ups.
If Bella is the source of comfort, Paula offers the coldness of a Crone figure. Her desire to get Ricky back isn’t out of immense sadness like Demeter, but out of legalistic determination. The fears and dangers she represents to Ricky are real, but she is made ridiculous by her obsession. Then again, their adventures makes the everyone involved in the law look idiotic.
Officer Andy: We’re offering ten thousand dollars to anyone who can capture them, dead or alive.
Officer Andy: Oh. Alive. They should be alive.
Then there is Kahu, the Kore figure. The girl who at dawn rescues Ricky on her barely domesticated horse and brings him food and music. She is presented as a muse, deliberately, and the positive leader of her family. She is both nurturing in her care for Ricky, but legalistic, in that she organises the rescue of the park ranger. She is the happy balance of Bella and Paula.
The making of men
I understand there needed to be a catalyst for Hec and Ricky to become ‘wilderpeople’ but does it have to be the same every freaking time? Even if this film explores how the absence of mothering/women wounds men, and drives them to recovery through doing both stupid and heart-rending stuff… Bella’s death really distracted me. Then again, I believe this is a worthy story, deserving of being made. For Ricky, pop culture references in place of parenting do not a man make. But Hec’s closed off emotions and grim silence don’t work either.
Death and intertextuality
What I realise is that what colours my experience of this film is my awareness of the BILLIONTY OTHER STORIES who kill off their female characters for less profound purposes. I know it’s not this film’s fault that there are decades of TV crime dramas, or 10,000 years of story telling with dead mothers littered through them like the inevitable snow in a Doctor Who Christmas episode. But every now and again it would be nice if mothers didn’t have to be dead for children to grow up. Especially when this particular story builds on the absence of Ricky’s birth mother.
So I beg you all – story tellers, novelists, playwrights – for the love of crikey find another way to traumatise your characters into action/personal growth beyond killing off their mothers.
Of two world views
There are two views of the cosmos presented in this film. The legal, paternal, chronological world of Child Welfare, police, and funeral services, where life is a series of experiences from home, to home, to home, to Juvenile Detention and then death.
This is contrasted to Bella’s beliefs. Where horses can exist for themselves, rather to be ridden, where families grow in all sorts of ways. In her world life and death coexist, as she kills a wild pig to feed her family. In Bella’s philosophy life is sweet, but bloody, and milestones are to be celebrated, but idiosyncratically. Rather than the confusing door metaphors of the Pastor Bella believes she will be reunited with her ancestors via a lake whose face touches the sky. This is made more poignant when we learn she, like Ricky, doesn’t know her ancestors. The film teaches us if you take Bella’s beliefs too far you end up as Psycho Sam, but too far the other way and you become Paula. Thus the film directs us to laugh at the Christian service by making it stupidly comic and the Pastor a Fool. And while Hec rightly walks out of this farce, it doesn’t make him a believer in Bella’s philosophy. In mourning, he takes time to come around to her world view.
In the end, Ricky and Hec are able to integrate both world views. Ricky finds a family. Hec learns to read. They accept that they must live within the law, while recognising they need each other, poetry and the wilderness for their personal growth.
- Lord of the Ring reference!
- Dogs stole the film. Tears.
- New Zealand is so green.
- I want to go there.
- That is all.