Hunters On A White Field

Hunters On A White Field (Jakt) (2024)

Hunters On A White Field (Jakt) had its world première at Tribeca, 8 June 2024

Hunters On A White Field (Jakt) opens with the sound of a heartbeat, and a close-up of the skin on a neck, throbbing rhythmically, racing even, to its owner’s accelerating pulse. Alex (Ardalan Esmaili) is passenger in an open-top sports car that roars like a beast and speeds dangerously down a woodland avenue. “If you get a kick out of the car,” its driver – and Alex’s boss – the older Greger (Magnus Krepper) tells him a little later, as they both urinate by the side of the road, “you’ll really get a rush from the hunt.” The status vehicle, the high-speed risk-taking, the marking of territory – these are signifiers both of masculine rites, and also of masculinity at its most performative and pathetic. Yet the hunt to which they are headed is, as Greger suggests with a gravity that borders on melancholy, “on a completely different level. The ultimate.”

Both these men are going to be guests for the weekend of Henrik (Jens Hultén), Greger’s old friend and hunting partner, at a beautiful, remote sylvan property owned by Henrik’s brother Ivar which, at the insistence of Ivar’s disapproving new wife, is about to be sold. “The end of an era,” as Greger puts it, “our last weekend.” Yet what for Greger and Henrik is a last hurrah for their homosocial bond and misplaced, outmoded machismo is also to be first blood for Alex – an initiation for the younger, inexperienced acolyte into the ways of errant, unreconstructed masculinity.  While the other two search for tracks, droppings and other signs of future prey, Alex instead gathers medicinal herbs from the forest floor – but it will not be long before it is acts of harming rather than healing that get his pulse racing, as he becomes his comrade’s equal, if not their superior, at the hunt.

The reason that the property is being sold is, we learn, that Ivar’s wife “can’t stand” Henrik, and does not want to spend any more time with him. It is not hard to see why. For he is a cocky presence, all supercilious swagger and brooding menace, with a casual embrace of misogyny (he refers to his new sister-in-law as ‘cunt’, and aims to use a photo of her for target practice) and racism (there is an uncomfortable line from him about the colour of Alex’s skin). A poisonous powderkeg of entitlement and undiagnosed idiocy, Henrik is hardly a rôle model – and yet now he and Greger have appointed themselves as cicerones to Alex, guiding this decent, well-adjusted ‘new man’ back toward their own collective, heavily gendered atavism.

This new male milieu proves deeply toxic – so much so that once Alex has been exposed to it, he responds by repeatedly vomiting. Yet it does not take long for him to acclimatise, and as the weekend of hunting gets extended, and as the trio move in their predation from ducks to deer to the most dangerous game, Alex finds himself shifting from gamma to alpha, in a competitive dash to the top that is also a race to the bottom. For when the wildlife suddenly and mysteriously vanishes from the forest, in a film that gradually drifts from realism to allegorical fairytale, the three men are left facing only themselves – and all that there is to them is aggressive oneupmanship and empty self-destruction. Once they set down this spiralling path of hypermasculinity, in wilfully burying their civilised humanity they are only digging their own hole.

From the moment Alex first treads these hunting grounds and obliviously crushes underfoot a nestful of eggs, it is clear that we are witnessing the end of innocence, and an elegy for a mode of masculinity that should not really be missed. Yet if there are no female characters in the cast of Hunters On A White Field to counterbalance its central trio in their segregated, strictly single-sex environment, that is certainly not true of the film’s crew. For, adapting from Mats Wägeus’s 1986 novel Jakt På Ett Vitt Fält (which also gives the film its English title), writer/director Sarah Gyllenstierna is joined in her debut feature by producers Maria Larsson Guerpillon and Charlotte Most, production designer Lina Nordqvist, makeup designer Linda Boije af Gennäs and set designer Lisa Hjertén, ensuring that this long hard gaze down the barrel is never simply male. It would make a fine double-feature with Annick Blanc’s Hunting Daze (Jour de Chasse, 2024), which casts a similarly oneiric, similarly female eye over men behaving badly just to make their hearts beat faster. 

strap: Sarah Gyllenstierna’s feature debut follows a trio of men on a tragico-absurdist hunt for their lost machismo

© Anton Bitel