Mark Steven Johnson’s Killing Season is a hard movie to take seriously, which is particularly unfortunate since it deals with such weighty issues as genocide, the ethical compromises that everyone makes in combat, and the lingering effects of wartime decisions on participants years down the line. If this sounds like heavy stuff, it is, and Johnson makes sure that we understand that he, at least, views the material with the utmost gravity, opening his film with a Bosnian War-set sequence of grotesque images—emaciated dead bodies, concentration camp prisoners, firing squads—all shot in a gritty “realist” style.
But the film then cuts to the present day, and instead of high drama, we’re offered something approaching high camp, though there’s every reason to believe that Killing Season isn’t in on the joke. After obtaining a file from a black marketer, former Serbian soldier Emil Kovac (John Travolta) goes from Belgrade to the Tennessee woods where the subject of that file, and the man who shot him and left him for dead almost two decades earlier, now lives. That man, Benjamin Ford (Robert De Niro), wants nothing more than to forget the past, hole himself up in his cabin, and take pictures of deer. Presumably haunted by his wartime actions, he shuts himself off from all those close to him, including his son and the new grandchild whom he’s never met.
The past, though, returns with a vengeance thanks to the sudden arrival of Kovac, who ingratiates himself with Ford, shooting the shit and sharing shots of Jaegermeister with him, before revealing his true identity and mission as the two men go out for a hunting trip. Not content to merely kill his old antagonist, Kovac wants a full moral reckoning in which he forces Ford to confess his role in the war. As such, the latter two thirds of the film play as a series of power reversals, in which one or the other of the combatants gains the physical upper hand before chattering for a seemingly endless amount of time, just long enough for the other to escape his vulnerable position and turn the tables on the other. These reversals eventually happen with such frequency that it becomes entirely comical. It’s the old movie cliché writ large: the character who has his enemy in his power, but hesitates too long and lets him escape.
But it’s coming to terms with the past, and not the simple enactment of revenge, that’s at stake here, so the two men have to talk about war crimes, moral equivalency, and the ethics of hunting (ostensibly deer, but clearly meant to refer to men as well). It’s all pretty pedestrian, but it takes on an almost laughable absurdity the more the two men converse, helped along in its ridiculousness by the novelty—and it’s nothing more than that—of seeing Travolta effect a Serbian accent.
Make no mistake, for all the deferred killing, this is still a bloody affair, one which takes a grotesque glee in arrows being shot through faces and impromptu torture sessions. But this violence, like the wartime framing device, and the pseudo-profound dialogue, are no indicator of moral gravity. In fact, any chance that a viewer would take any of this with anything close to the intended solemnity is continually undercut, not just by the fast-and-furious plot twists, but by Johnson’s feeble efforts at loaded imagery and character shorthand.
Thus the director introduces Ford listening to Johnny Cash and reading a book that a cut-in reveals to be For Whom the Bell Tolls; he pounds home the metaphor of hunting with a ham-fisted obviousness that would make Thomas Vinterberg blush, and he punctuates the final church-set reckoning with a “heavenly” beam of light illuminating the characters. And then there are those endless symbolic shots of a hawk floating around the sky just in case we didn’t realize, what with all the genocide and such, that this is a very serious business indeed.