Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Directed by: Taika Waititi
Starring: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata
It is believed that by the halfway point of its initial commercial run in native New Zealand earlier this year, one in nine Kiwis had been to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Indeed, at the time of writing, Taika Waititi’s fantastic fourth feature stands strong as the biggest homegrown cinematic hit of the director’s home nation; and you don’t have to be fluent in Te Reo to understand why.
Set predominately in the country’s cosmic bushland, and following the footsteps of an urban Maori delinquent whose adventures are played to a percussive score of rhythmic tribal chants (crafted by the Kiwi band Moniker), Waititi’s wonderful film – adapted from born and bred Aucklander Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress – is so distinctively symbolic of New Zealand’s culture that you can’t help but be surprised to witness the whole thing carried off without a haka to be seen.
If you can try to imagine a live action remake of Up, located to New Zealand, and collaborated on by both Wes Anderson & the Coen Brothers, you’ll have some semblance of what to expect from Hunt For The Wilderpeople – and yes, it’s every bit as good as the image that description conjures; a hilariously offbeat contemporary classic that’s as comfortable indulging in boisterous moments of big screen flamboyance, as it is enjoying the roars of laughter that come from simply being in the company of the odd couple at its centre.This pivotal, peculiar pair consists of reckless yute Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), and his cantankerous new foster father Hec Faulkner (Sam Neill); affectionately referred to as “Uncle” by Ricky, much to Hec’s own chagrin. Ricky has been placed in the care of Hec and his warm-hearted wife Bella (Rima Te Wiata) as a last chance saloon before the state commits him to juvenile detention. “He’s a real bad egg”, snaps the venomous tongue of Ricky’s belligerent welfare officer (an irresistibly bullish Rachel House), and there’s certainly evidence to support such an accusation. Yet it’s clear from the moment we first meet him that beneath Ricky’s bitter bulk beats the heart of a child that’s been both neglected and misunderstood.
Hec, however, consistently shows little interest in trying to either sympathise or connect with Ricky, and gruffly instructs the boy to leave him alone when they first meet. Soon though, such evasion becomes impossible to sustain after a series of unfortunate events leave man and boy lost together in the vast wilderness, and inadvertently subject to a nationwide manhunt.
Shot in just four weeks, Wilderpeople fizzes with a relentless and infectious energy: Waititi’s deft direction shifting seamlessly from raucous sequences of comedic silliness, to quieter scenes driven solely by character. There are big themes at play here; mournful musings on the nature of loss and the importance of companionship that are all but guaranteed to leave a lump in your throat, and maybe even a tear in your eye. But never does Taika shamelessly exploit such sentiment as a way to pander to his audience’s sensitive side; skilfully handling those beats instead, of which there are more than you initially realise, with a light touch that allows the drama an opportunity to mature at its own momentum.The motto of the welfare representative who’s in pursuit of our not-so-dynamic duo is “no child left behind”, yet in Ricky we see a boy who has effectively been abandoned by those who should be wholly invested in his wellbeing. And in light of this desertion, it is to Hec that he looks for guidance. Dennison’s chemistry with Neill is ultimately what carries the film: Ricky’s growing relationship with his “Uncle” shaped with a prickly edge that naturally offsets the pathos we see in both characters – they need each other, and deep down they know it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to like it.
Humour radiates from Waititi’s script naturally, just as beauty emanates from the lush landscapes of the New Zealand bush – captured with a crisp, awe-inspiring splendour by DP Lachlan Milne. There are whimsical wonders to delight in throughout: Rhys Darby’s camouflaged crackpot Psycho Sam is a notable highlight. And plenty of snappy one-liners that you’ll subsequently want to quote with prolific regularity; “Faulkner is Cauc Asian” says Ricky, reading from the pair’s own wanted poster at one point, before briefly concluding “well they got that wrong, because you’re obviously white”.
Most striking of all, however, is how Waititi preserves his own idiosyncratic identity of heightened absurdity, whilst deriving ideas from the creative influences American cinema has had on him: Ricky regularly references Hollywood classics – from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Scarface – while Thelma and Louise was a clear touchstone in the crafting of the feverish finale; a full throttle pursuit between a trashed Toyota Hilux and a tank that’s more hysterical than hot.
Next year, we’ll be seeing if Waititi has what it takes to lift Thor’s Hammer in the Marvel threequel Ragnarok, but given the godlike status he has achieved here, one cannot imagine it’ll pose too much of a challenge.