When I reviewed Oklahoma City auteur Mickey Reece’s Strike, Dear Mistress, And Cure His Heart at last year’s Fantastic Fest, I didn’t quite know what to make of it; in many ways, I still don’t. Though Reece averages two films a year on shoestring budgets, Strike, Dear Mistress was my first, and the impression that film gave me was that Reece is an obtusely idiosyncratic filmmaker with immense skill at the craft, and while he seemingly had a lot to say in his art, he perhaps didn’t overly care if the message was clearly communicated to his audience. So when presented an opportunity to review another of Reece’s works, I suspected that Climate of the Hunter would show me whether Reece is always so impenetrable or whether his work could exhibit some range. And while Climate of the Hunter is still very identifiably the work of the same Mickey Reece, it also shows a much more accessible side to his artistry, one that can more readily connect with a wider audience.
Climate of the Hunter initially presents itself as a muted domestic drama, as sisters Alma (Ginger Gilmartin) and Elizabeth (Mary Buss) meet up at their family cabin to reconnect with their friend Wesley (Ben Hall) after twenty years apart. They converse and reminisce over dinner, as Elizabeth bemoans her workaholic lifestyle and Wesley, an author and storyteller by trade, confesses that he recently had to put up his wife Genevieve (Laurie Cummings) in an institution due to her deteriorating physical and mental health. However, as Alma confides with her friend BJ Beaver (Jacob Snovel) over a joint, the film takes on its higher concept hook, as Alma starts to suspect that Wesley might not be all that he seems, that he may in fact be a vampire.
There are numerous artistic flourishes that betray this as a Mickey Reece film, such as quick mealtime cuts to narration of the courses served, pondering monologues of cosmic philosophy accompanied by atomic and galactic visuals around the dinner table, and vampiric dream sequences that probably don’t reflect Alma’s lived experiences, though you can’t quite be sure. It’s hard to say whether every piece of symbolism or character drama comes together to make complete coherent sense, particularly with the introduction of Wesley’s son (Sheridan McMichael) and Alma’s daughter (Danielle Evon Ploeger) in minor plot-driving roles, but the Hitchcockian tone grounds the eccentricity enough to give Climate of the Hunter an easy-going atmosphere that slowly boils over into a surrealist nightmare.
It certainly helps this time around that Reece’s motivations in telling this story are much more obvious, as he delves deep into the relationships between innocuous civility, predatory behavior, feminine suspicion, and the modern analog to vampiric myths. Ben Hall’s Wesley proves to be an absolute scene-stealer, delivering Reece’s and co-writer John Selvidge’s richly melodramatic dialogue with sensually dangerous mystery, though Ginger Gilmartin isn’t too far behind in conveying Alma’s layered psychology and her potential break from it. The stranger storytelling choices work within this context because the very nature of the story makes us question what we are bearing witness to, with the question of whether or not Wesley is really a vampire acting as a clever misdirection for a more important and pressing answer.
Like Strike, Dear Mistress, I don’t see Climate of the Hunter suiting casual mainstream tastes, though this is perhaps a more palatable entry point to Mickey Reece’s work for the uninitiated. It’s a film dripping in sensuously mysterious atmosphere, but instead of drowning its characters in absurdity like an overdressed salad, it uses its director’s bizarre proclivities as a garnish to a relatable, more readily consumable story. If nothing else, it certainly made me happy to have given Mickey Reece a second chance.
Climate of the Hunter screens tonight at the Nashville Film Festival.