A dark rain falls from an Old Testament sky. The elements, though, have a way to go to equal the sour look on Stephen Hunter’s face. The Washington Post film critic enters the lobby of the Charles Theatre in Baltimore nursing a plastic cup of coffee. Dressed in sweater, jeans, hiking shoes, and a Ravens baseball cap, he could pass for a parking-lot attendant.
Hunter takes a seat on a couch in the lobby. James “Buzz” Cusack, the theater’s owner, joins him. “What’d you really think of No Country for Old Men?” Cusack asks.
Hunter nods in appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest thriller. It had plenty of what he likes—gunplay, chase scenes, thought-provoking violence. Yet in his Post review, he called it “unsatisfying, with a capital U.”
On this dark morning, preparing to screen Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a fantasy/comedy, Hunter seems nostalgic for the violent R-rated film and ready to forgive the Coens for the movie’s faults. He tells Cusack there’s a lot to like about it.
Inside one of the Charles’s small theaters, a dozen critics gather for the morning screening. Hunter claims a row for his own and, as the lights dim, settles in with his coffee. With the titles rolling, he leans over and says in a stage whisper, “Everybody thinks this is such a glamorous job. But what it really comes down to is sitting in the dark, waiting for something memorable to happen.”
Over more than a quarter century, first at the Baltimore Sun and for the last decade at the Post, Hunter has emerged as the area’s most popular film critic and one of the most acclaimed nationally. Five years ago, he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, only the second movie reviewer to be so honored. The Pulitzer committee cited his “irreverent, fearless, spontaneous, explosively funny voice. And like the great Pauline Kael, he is forever suggesting that art can be a good, lusty, happy thing, that doesn’t always have to be an immersion in a new level of human misery.”
Not bad for a 62-year-old guy who barely survived a childhood with an alcoholic father and who once feared he’d be forever chained to the newspaper copy desk. Now in the twilight of his newspaper career, Hunter looks primed for big things as a novelist and in Hollywood.
Forty-five minutes in, Wonder Emporium has gone into a death spiral. Its meager jokes, despite the efforts of stars Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman, are met with silence by the critics. Hunter gazes at the screen as if praying for something better to happen.
Unlike many reviewers, he doesn’t take notes, which means he occasionally slips up in his description of a film’s story line. But for Hunter, a film and its review should be more than a parade of plot points. A good movie, he says, can make time stand still.
“You get gravitas by some special alchemy between face and film as transmuted through lens and tweaked by light, until what registers is larger and more powerful than what is,” he writes in Now Playing at the Valencia, his 2005 collection of essays about movies. Few films today exhibit much grace and audacity—which explains his often grumpy reviews.
“Well, what’d you think?” Hunter asks as the lights come up.
I tell him I felt sorry for Natalie Portman. Her role as an insecure toy-store manager seemed to straitjacket her, particularly after her performance in 2004’s Closer, a sophisticated drama about infidelity.
Hunter nods: “It wasn’t exactly a career advancer, was it?”
Outside, the sun has begun to break through the clouds. Hunter smiles when he announces our next destination—the gun range.
While columnists and critics often write from home, it was never Hunter’s goal not to have a place to go to work every day. Weekdays he often attends a screening in the morning and again at night. He regularly writes his reviews from his desk at the Post. Even on days when he doesn’t have to be someplace, he makes a point of getting out of the house.
“The longer I’m cooped up by myself, the weirder I get,” he says. “If I stayed home all the time, even though I probably could, I’d end up weighing 400 pounds with pigtails and tattoos.”
So, as the sky clears, he steers his black Acura downtown and peels around the Inner Harbor to Federal Hill, where he lives in a rowhouse with his second wife, Jean Marbella, a metro columnist at the Sun. (They met when she was assigned a desk across from him in the newsroom.) After a quick stop at home, we’re heading down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, pushing life hard from the left lane.
Hunter’s office at home is only for his book work. The 47th Samurai, which came out last year, is his 15th book. Though his oeuvre includes nonfiction—Violent Screen: A Critic’s 13 Years on the Front Lines of Movie Mayhem was his first collection of movie essays—he’s better known for his thrillers. In many of them, the main character is Bob Lee Swagger, a former Special Ops sniper in Vietnam, or his father, Earl, a Marine veteran of World War II and an Arkansas state policeman. Both are quick with their fists and eager to do what’s right. They ride roughshod through narratives that Hunter describes as “fast and dirty, like a really good B movie.”
Hunter’s readers have come to expect well-choreographed action scenes, a generous slice of violence, and a real-life character or two. “One of my gifts as a professional is being able to write fast,” Hunter says. “That seems to have gone out of favor today, but that’s something I treasure from how I came up through the ranks. That’s not to say I haven’t tried other approaches, other styles of writing. But I soon discovered that I don’t have the talent for writing movie scripts, for example.