Rare is the debut film that announces itself with a developed thematic voice and expertly intertwined themes, told with twin deftness and humor. Wild Game is of that breed, a dramedy, topped with a shoot ‘em up finale, that ambles along at an agreeable pace until the starting gun gets fired and then, like a mustang pitted in a contentious horserace, it takes off at whiplash speed.
Wild Game is the project of director Brock Harris and writer Jared Bonner, who also co-star in the film as ancillary characters who finally dovetail into the main narrative thrust. Harris’s previous credits are primarily in acting, but from the looks of it, a bright director is promised within Wild Game’s tight-as-a-drum 80 minutes. From the get, Wild Game is shot with a well-trained and hungry eye. There’s an old line attributed to someone that shooting in the American West is easy: “Basically all you do out there is call action,” the proverb goes, “and the landscape is so stunning it does all the work for you.” While the creative duo no doubt capitalized on that, their idiosyncratic voices breathe new life into the vagaries of the western film. Behind that blinding blue Wyoming sky, and the clouds of dust kicked up by clopping horse hooves, is a slick gem of an indie.
Harris and Bonner fled Los Angles to capture cinematic lightning in a bottle. After hiding out from the pandemic in a lodge in Snowmass, Colorado, and devouring films by their favorite directors, Harris and Bonner hatched a scheme to take a small crew to a secluded ranch in Wyoming and shoot a script of Bonner’s over the course of nine days in July. On a shoe-string budget, the pair defied all expectations, wrapping that summer and quickly entering the editing room. One would never guess the final product—shot with the vintage lenses used on The Sound of Music—cost less than a million bucks. The vistas captured are grand enough to give Paramount’s cash-cow series Yellowstone a run for its money, with both mountainous terrain and brilliant streaks of lens-flare slashing through the golden hour skies. Consider my tickets to Wyoming already booked.
Wild Game takes place on and around 3 Spear Ranch where characters Clay and Annie Wilson have fallen on hard times. To add to the financial burdens inherited from Clay’s proud, pony-roping father, the husband and wife are paying top-dollar for fertility treatments. But that quickly becomes a moot point. Annie gets pregnant, and now the money question shifts: can we afford this kid?
A recent theme in American cinema has been the impunity with which the system shafts its participants, and the lengths those participants will go to balance the books. Sometimes that involves bending—and breaking—the law. Right or wrong, crossing the line, and where that line lies, are all threads throughout Wild Game.
Banjo, Clay’s best riding buddy, brings a potential client to the ranch’s doorstep. The client, a method actor, Donnie, has an upcoming role as an avid outdoorsmen. But Donnie’s commitment to craft won’t let him fake it—he wants to live it before the production starts, and therefore enlists Clay and Banjo’s expertise to help him bag an elk. There’s just one problem: it ain’t hunting season.
Gunner, portrayed by director Brock Harris in a near non-speaking role, looms large as Wild Game’s antagonist. A vet who served in Afghanistan, Gunner encounters his own version of disenfranchisement on the fringes when he can’t reap the healthcare benefits he’s earned through his military service. In a patient and satisfying slow-burn, this triggers what eventually becomes the Deliveranceportion of the film. Harris as Gunner gives a unique physical performance, ursine in how he carries himself like the grizzlies and black bears the hunting party often speaks of. A unique tick he has of removing his hearing devices before employing the coup-de-grace on his victims reads particularly menacing, as if Gunner can’t face hearing the sound of the atrocity he’s committing by his own hand.
An ode to many of the genre-jumping movies the filmmakers consumed in their Snowmass bungalow, Wild Gamechanges gears from act to act. The middle portion, wedged between a domestic drama and a revenge-thriller, harbors a keen and well-drawn hangout movie. Once screenwriter Jared Bonner comes into frame, playing Gunner’s brother, Gaylen Waslham, a lever is thrown, and so begins the levity of this shaggy, yet profound, middle part. As our characters plumb deep into the wilderness and their idyllic romp through nature nudges ever-further into an impending nightmare, their hard exteriors are shed. Donnie, the method actor, admits he lacks any authentic friendships, and Clay’s vulnerability in the face of fatherhood is exposed. Laughs are had between the characters and laughs are shared in the audience as well. On screen, Bonner’s nuanced wit is almost midwestern in its charm. His character is fueled by goodwill, but goodwill is not a survival mechanism in Wild Game’s Hobbesian portrayal of nature.
The scant criticisms I have are with the film’s audio mix. Occasionally the gravely utterances of the film’s lead cowboys are difficult to make out—“What did he say?” Other places, the audio shines. The diegetic melody of Gunner’s harmonica lilting and interlacing with the film’s instrumental score gave me the chills. Those hypnotic moments are among the best I’ve seen at the cinema all year. Long, laborious, and captivating takes that transport the viewer to the high plains. When Wild Game cracks its rawhide whip, you can almost smell the roaring campfires and fallen pine needles underfoot.
Harris and Bonner recently left L.A. again, permanently this time, for Austin, Texas, with the aim of launching a studio that replicates the Wild Game magic. A play on the “mumblecore” film movement, they call their films “humble-core,” or as Harris puts it “we want to make quality films with humble resources.” In today’s decentralized, post-gatekeeper film industry, it sounds like a recipe destined to work, as long as consumers are patient enough to wait for the next one.
Writer, actor, and long-time friend Jared Bonner suggested we pair each one of Wild Game’s characters with one of Righteous Felon’s signature jerkies.
Donnie - Kind of like an ersatz Timothy Olyphant circa his Go and Girl Next Door years, Donnie brings plenty of tool-bag vibes to the big screen. That’s why we’ve got to pair him with RF’s 6 lb. KETO Meat Box. For keeping that actorly figure!
Gaylen - The comic relief and beating heart of Wild Game, Gaylen deserves a jerky both pungent and rich. Therefore, we’ve awarded Gaylen the ultimate honor of having Truffle-O Bill represent him in our jerky-verse.
Gunner - Gunner Walsham is so drenched with mustache-twirling evil that only the dark lord himself can be his jerky. Congrats Gunner, you’ve been paired with the master of chaos: Darth Garlic Biltong.
Also check out our blog: HOW TO THROW A HUNTING PARTY IN 9 STEPS.