Jennifer Jason Leigh Is A Welcome Addition To A More Measured Revenge Plan

Jan 12, 2023

Nearly three years have passed since David Weil’s bombastic Holocaust revenge series, “Hunters,” debuted on Prime Video to decidedly mixed reviews. The Auschwitz Memorial didn’t hold back when they leveled criticism at the project, calling its depiction of a game of human chess “dangerous foolishness & caricature.” Primarily set in the 1970s, Weil’s story showcases a group of vigilantes on the hunt for Nazis who escaped justice at the end of WWII. Some of these leading figures have conspired to bring about the Fourth Reich in the USA—a plot that fails. 
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The first season finale dropped a couple of other bombshells, namely that Lena Olin’s Fourth Reich architect, The Colonel, is better known as Hitler’s wife, Eva Braun. Oh, and her husband is still very much alive. The Hunters’ job is far from over, and the second season picks up two years after the team has scattered to different parts of the globe. 
Weil responded via The Hollywood Reporter to the Auschwitz Memorial’s condemnation of the fictional elements by pinpointing his intent behind this specific chess sequence and overall creative direction—as well as referencing that his Holocaust survivor grandmother is an inspiration. Several moments within the concluding eight episodes suggest he took these concerns on board, coupled with the absence of those kinds of scenes that drew condemnation. Removing fictional inhuman horrors inflicted at the camps is a significant improvement, and memories of this period are mostly depicted through spoken testimony. 
One flashback sequence builds dread in its portrayal of the past but doesn’t occur in a concentration camp. It incorporates pulpy stylistic imagery to reinforce survival methods; discomfort levels might vary, but lessons regarding storytelling responsibility have undoubtedly been learned. Yes, there are still some tonal whiplash and twisted moments included to shock, but amid high-octane action sequences is a stronger sense of an emotional anchor, giving “Hunters” a less scattershot focal point. 
Justice and what it means for someone to get what they deserve has been an overarching theme since Al Pacino, as Meyer Offerman, first told Jonah (Logan Lerman) about the role his grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin) played in the covert group. Ruth’s murder kickstarted baby-faced Jonah’s involvement with the Hunters, and by the end of last season, he had murdered the man who claimed he was Meyer. Unlike Hitler, there was zero ambiguity about Meyer’s death at the hands of his grandson, so viewers might be surprised to see Pacino is back.
On second thoughts, it isn’t that surprising: Pacino is the marquee name, and his character is responsible for bringing this group together. Yes, he is also a Nazi doctor who was nicknamed the Wolf and underwent plastic surgery to evade capture by taking on the identity of the Jewish man he tortured. Jonah dished out the punishment he felt was deserved at the moment, and this event contributed to the group’s current fractured state.
At first, the inclusion of Meyer comes across as a contrived and redundant way to include Pachino after his character’s death. However, by the third episode, there is an understanding of why his presence is more than ticking the acting A-lister casting box. Rather than going back to the first season to look for clues of Meyer’s deception, Weil goes deeper into the Hunter origins and the catalyst for this group’s existence. 
It takes a couple of episodes to find the rhythm of the season, which primarily toggles between 1975 and 1979. This four-year period explores Wolf building his hit squad on a foundation of half-truths and what has happened since his death. “Hunters” has always used the past to support events in the present, but the additional knowledge of Meyer’s real identity reshapes the narrative. Regardless of his lies, this format offers much-needed additional backstory to core characters like Joe (Louis Ozawa) and Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany). The reasons for joining this cause vary, and the second season explores the varied paths to Meyer. There are also new players, including the brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh as the laser-focused Chava Apfelbaum. 
Leigh’s signature mix of intensity and cool-headedness makes her ideal for this world, as do the action roles on her resume and her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino. “Hunters” has been likened to Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” (or wishing it was similar to the director’s pastiche take on WWII), and Leigh’s casting will only add to those comparisons. While this reads like a purposeful choice, Leigh immediately elevates the material and is particularly impactful, opposite Lerman.
The young man we met in the first episode after the murder of his beloved grandmother now has longer hair and a beard that instantly makes him look more worldly. Trauma reverberates through this cast of characters, and Jonah’s every shade of brown turtleneck and leather styling points to the world of academia he uses as a cover. Costume designer Christie Wittenborn adds playful touches to each look (particularly when they go undercover) that further add to the growth between seasons of characters like Jonah. He lives in Paris with a British fiance, but there is always one more Nazi to track down. 
Discovering that the man who orchestrated the whole thing is alive and well in Argentina is enough to get the gang back together, and Jonah must put his cover story to one side. His romance with Clara (Emily Rudd) shows a version of life absent from violence. However, several developments along the way require some contrived leaps, only necessary to move the story along. A debate about what makes a person a monster is another overarching topic preoccupying Jonah and several other group members, and Clara’s outsider presence acts as a catalyst. 
“Hunters” is at its strongest when showcasing how characters process the guilt of a quest littered with bodies—guilty or not. Millie (Jerrika Hinton) straddles both worlds, and her journey is one of the most satisfying. The push-pull between relying on the authorities and the rule of law to take care of those who have evaded punishment for decades and the Hunters brand of swift justice is an ongoing source of conflict that allows Weil’s series to go beyond the exploitation mimicking violence of its first season. Yes, there are still some comically grim penalties dished out, and it is hard to shake those encounters, but the frequency has, thankfully, been dialed back. It is no longer an all-or-nothing exploration of stylistic bloodshed. Having the Holocaust as the motivating factor has to count for something, and the “Never Again” sentiment is repeated throughout—as well as addressing insidious Holocaust deniers. 
The danger from brushing abhorrent acts under the carpet is a cornerstone of the Hunters’ motivation. Storytellers shape history, and there is concern that forgetting will lead to another genocide. Memory and guilt are entwined, and characters like Carol Kane’s still grieving Mindy Markowitz don’t have an outlet for their pain when men like Adolf Hitler (Udo Kier) are still free. Season 1 struggled to land some more emotional moments. Still, this sophomore outing nails several tear-inducing moments that hit on the severity of the Holocaust without undercutting the scenes with over-the-top violence.  
Considering the significant rise in antisemitic rhetoric and attacks since the first season debuted, there is unfortunate timeliness to examine how the next generation is indoctrinated. Parallels between the past and our present are a tad on the nose. However, this show is not purporting to be subtle. Some elements of Travis’s (Greg Austin) story are underdeveloped, making him more of a racist caricature with a thirst for Nazi ideals. A few other storylines get short shrift, but the eight-episode format is enough to make this a satisfying end to this entertaining story. 
Some sequences stretch credibility, but that is part of the genre the Jordan Peele-produced series emulates. Sam Taylor-Johnson directs the brilliant third episode, “Duck. Quail. Goose. Crow.” and offers a masterclass in building tension while digging into the heart of the relationships. The various dynamics within the Hunters are a strength that is not overshadowed or outweighed by the over-the-top aesthetic. How sensational (or tasteful) audiences find the events depicted will vary, but “Hunters” has found a way to dial into hit squad theatrics of its alt-history landscape and address the deep scars that still reverberate. [B]

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