In The Hunter, which was shot in the months just prior to the contentious Iranian presidential election in 2009 and then premiered at the Berlinale in 2010, writer-director Rafi Pitts plays Ali, a "taciturn graveyard-shift warehouse security guard, recently released from jail for a never-specified crime," as Melissa Anderson puts it in the Voice. "To avenge the deaths of his beloved wife and six-year-old daughter, killed during off-screen protests, Ali takes out two cops sniper-style and flees to a forest in the north. Pitts, who was born in 1967 in Iran and fled the country in 1981 for England, and cinematographer Mohammad Davudi frequently frame Ali in striking long shots: The protagonist is dwarfed by his surroundings, whether the labyrinthine entrance to his apartment building or the steep dirt incline he descends after killing the police officers. The open spaces stifle just as much as the claustrophobic hearing rooms and stairwells do in this season's other absorbing Iranian drama, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation."
Both films are, "most obviously," writes Chuck Bowen in Slant, "about a lost and flailing middle class that feels abandoned by their government, and it's this subtext that allows both of these films to be surprisingly accessible to American audiences. A Separation is a masterpiece because it's a thriller of almost unbelievable emotional immediacy that quietly transforms, seemingly without effort, into a parable of the irresolvability of the responsibilities of governing humans, regardless of culture. And for a while, The Hunter manages a similar magic trick as a tale of misplaced revenge in which everyone is equally complicit and innocent. But the film grows more obvious during its third act, when Ali finds himself once again pursued by the police. At this point, Pitts begins to telegraph his ironies with dialogue that reduces the eerie power of his staging."
"As a suspenseful lone-gunman drama, The Hunter is more potent than most for what it leaves out," argues Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "The story is intentionally oblique."
But "at what does The Hunter aim?" asks Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. "As in A Separation, we sense a backdrop of larger dysfunction, with a system of law and order coming unstitched at the seams. But the texture of daily frustration, so rough and real in Farhadi's film, feels more abstract in Pitts's cautious hands; the rooms and the landscapes are framed with poise, although I can't decide whether he is depicting a genuinely hemmed-in soul or honoring a debt to Jean-Pierre Melville…. The Hunter was shot during the fractious 2009 elections in Iran, but they emerge as mere background noise — chatter overheard on the radio. If you find it convenient to think of Iran more as a bad dream than as a perceptible place, this is the film for you."
Updates, 1/5: "It's amazing how many reviews of Pitts's fourth feature have been confidently — and, I think, inaccurately — calling it minimalist." Jonathan Rosenbaum in Cinema Scope 46: "With so much going on in terms of sound and image, and all that is conveyed about living in Iran today (including a view of Tehran in all its modernist, polluted disarray that captures the city I visited a decade ago better than any other film I've seen), what could they be thinking of? Even though a few details towards the end of The Hunter (e.g., a plaintive and percussive electric guitar accompanying figures in a labyrinthine forest) evoke Dead Man (1995) — a film that can plausibly be called minimalist, along with Jim Jarmusch's other films — I would argue that the main thrust of this film is anything but minimalist; in this case, an implied insult that seems predicated on a misunderstanding."
Pitts, notes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, "was born in Tehran, educated in Britain and did his filmmaking apprenticeship in France, working for Jean-Luc Godard and Léos Carax. Along the way he has clearly absorbed both European and American influences; although the spare, alienated, almost wordless style of The Hunter recalls 70s art-house cinema, it's also a movie about a lonely guy in the big city with a car, a hunting rifle and nothing to lose."
"As it happens, Pitts cast himself in the title role by accident after his lead actor showed up six hours late on the first day of shooting and had to be fired," adds Steve Erickson in Gay City News. "He says the part carried him to a very dark, difficult state of mind, and the stress is palpable in his performance."
"The Hunter is way too heavy-handed at times about depicting its protagonist's sense of loss," finds Noel Murray at the AV Club, "and even with the expressionistic touches and brisk editing, the plot bubbles along a little too slowly for a potboiler. But the film is stunningly composed, with images that convey Pitts's sense of being ground down by modernity and beset by institutional hypocrisy."