Three men, three generations of the same family, embark on a hunting trip deep in the woods in the dead of winter. The remoteness of their location and the treacherous weather will redefine the power dynamics of their group. In Whitetail Bucks, writer/director Derek Tonks takes us to an Idaho forest, during a particularly rough winter, to paint a very snowy and unsettling thriller (laced with hints of social commentary), where the characters are unaware of exactly what they are up against.
Describing the narrative of his film as hunters struggling with “their own crumbling ideas of what it means to be a traditional patriarchal man as well as what it means to be human”, the storyline for Whitetail Bucks was inspired by two different, but oddly complementary sources. Firstly, the director was fascinated by this idea that when deer bucks rut, they go through a dramatic behavioral change making them more bold, aggressive, confused or even delirious at the sight or sound of a doe or other bucks.
“The combination of hunting and losing one’s self in nature were the ideas that sparked the film”
Merging this bit of information from the animal kingdom with the idea that a camping trip is an activity with a strong macho connotation and you have the perfect set up to explore “masculinity and animalistic loss of control”. The director adding that: “The combination of hunting and losing one’s self in nature were the ideas that sparked the film”. A camping trip may feel like an obvious plot device to explore gender expectations, but Tonks’ film tackles the subject in a subtle fashion, letting the situation speak for itself rather than laying it all out in the dialogue.
What the three characters in Whitetail Bucks seem to underestimate, and what ultimately makes the film so thrilling, is that there is a fourth omniscient character in this story, the location. The forest has an undeniable presence, with this type of remote wilderness being both incredibly beautiful, but also ruthless. Tonks’ DP Dakota Adney heightens the importance of this fourth character by framing the film in a way that is again both simultaneously gorgeous and threatening.
The aesthetic of the film – thinking about the production conditions makes me want to grab an extra layer – is enough to give you chills. However, Tonks’ ramps up the tension by using nature as the perfect anti-hero, turning the hunters into the prey and in its last act, Whitetail Bucks is psychologically enthralling and haunting. The score, composed by Mark Garbett, is deeply effective in creating this disturbing atmosphere and without an overly dramatic twist, the dark turn the narrative takes in its conclusion will leave you with an unsettling feeling for some time.
Derek Tonks is credited as an Executive Producer on Are You Still There?, a short directed by S/W alum duo Sam Davis and Oscar Winner Rayka Zehtabchi – (SHn(y)o͞of) – that premiered at Clermont earlier in 2021 and has since been selected at SXSW, Aspen and Seattle. Tonks is now developing his feature debut, currently in the writing stage, while also directing some commercial work.