Cameron McHarg’s Deer Season is a short film in the tradition of good short stories, telling more in its elisions than its actual words or pictures. Its ellipses speak to lives marked by absences: those of two friends (played by McHarg and co-producer Hus Miller) for whom the passing of twenty years estranged has served to erase more than a shade of familiarity. In its place they have the social crutch of sport (hunting), its provision of common purpose and its permittance of conversational silences.
The camera dips in and out of their exchanges, lingering in the pauses on railway bridges, freight trains, rock scrambles, yellowing leaves. McHarg captures something inhuman in the otherwise idyllic autumnal environs of these Washington forests: something in the spaces between the men’s utterances, hinting manifold, unspoken anxieties – about family, maleness, class and ownership – and the forest’s vacant refusal to cure them.
In its preoccupations and formal economy Deer Season feels of a lineage of twentieth-century American stories, but the men’s experiences are contemporary. When McHarg’s character confesses, euphemistically, of fronting happiness to hide a near-terminal depression, the slightest phrase – “all those pictures?” – signals a mode of self-alienation specific to the post-Facebook age. Social media platforms advertise the preservation of social bonds across all time and space, yet within them we are encouraged to broadcast ourselves as idealised fakes, to an audience of friends with whom we may have had no meaningful contact in twenty years.
Miller meets McHarg’s confidence with a response that presumes a recovery not disclosed (“I know what it’s like to do the right thing – turn your life around”) yet carries a still decodable warmth. It is a flavour of masculine empathy that both confers and undermines itself in its too-ready attempt to restore dignity to the vulnerable party.
It is hard to tell how it lands with McHarg, perhaps too self-conscious in the disclosure to really listen, but it is something – a moment of good intent. What follows, almost immediately, is an incident many times the magnitude, and completely devastating. Unseen to the viewer, it occurs entirely through reaction shots, sound design and a few panicked phrases of dialogue. Its burden settles heavy on McHarg’s expression as the men drive back from the forest, bringing with them something more to hide.