A deliberately offbeat characterization of mental illness, Hunter Gatherer is ultimately a failed act of empathy. The film follows Ashley (Andre Royo), a fortysomething whose release from prison lands him back home with his mother and in fruitless pursuit of an ex, Linda (Ashley Wilkerson). In an early scene, Ashley assures Linda that he’s rediscovered “the power of positivity” and that he’s changed for the better. Writer-director Josh Locy stages their interaction through wooden remarks that emphasize exposition over insight—a problem that recurs throughout the film, especially once Ashley crosses paths with Jeremy (George Sample III), a scrawny twentysomething who makes money as a “lab rat” for a medical science company. As their relationship splinters into numerous, discouraging trajectories, Locy doubles down on the erroneous assumption that depicting Ashley’s misfortunes inherently yields a profound portraiture of human struggle.
Locy paints in stock indie strokes, like having the film’s title suddenly appear in cursive aside Ashley as he blankly stares at a lit candle. Moreover, Keegan DeWitt’s affected, woodwind score punctuates scenes to ironize Ashley’s deluded sense of purpose as he obsessively hauls refrigerators around town as part of a wayward business venture. Whereas Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven depicts its schizophrenic protagonist through abstract and elliptical editing while remaining tethered to the character’s pain, Hunter Gatherer is straightforwardly compelled by Ashley’s enigmatic behaviors and finds no urgency in their unfolding beyond a most immediate, scene-by-scene context.
Despite some fledgling directorial choices, Royo’s intelligent performance locates a man whose entire life, which has been predicated on cockamamie get-rich-quick schemes, revolves around an absence of community function. Lost in thoughts of past love and clouded by notions of future prosperity, Ashley is indicative of a complex set of social terms. He’s the product of his own desires constantly intersecting with failure, of investing his energies into ventures that have no lucrative potential in the first place. He cons Ray (Kevin Jackson), a motel owner, into letting him have a room for free so that he can store numerous broken refrigerators—pieces in an ill-advised effort to make fast money. Royo plays Ashley’s sociopathic lies with a matter-of-factness befitting the character’s clouded vision of entrepreneurship, yet Locy’s screenplay balks at giving the character a deeper look and ultimately resigns him to repetitious humiliations that flatly reinforce his futility.
Locy integrates actions that nod to cinematic predecessors, most notably a scene, of two men loading heavy machinery onto the back of a truck, that’s taken straight from Killer of Sheep. The homage is a blank recognition of influence; while Charles Burnett’s furious sense of generational disenfranchisement is written onto both his characters and their Watts neighborhood, Locy’s mise-en-scène utilizes Los Angeles’s geography as an anonymous backdrop. Likewise, every ounce of the bravura Tangerine breathes life into the indie spirit by conceiving of L.A.’s spaces, both visually and narratively, as a merry-go-round of subcultures. Conversely, Hunter Gatherer feels like a film still in the wrapper, delicately packaged to maximize its forced pathos in a bid for audience accessibility.