Documentarian Lee Anne Schmitt says “The Last Buffalo Hunt” isn’t about about hunting buffalo, but rather “the image of the American West, questioning the authenticity of our myths and the foundations of our frontier ideology.” That sounds good in press interviews, but what’s onscreen is a meandering jumble that’s unpleasantly vivid when portraying hunting tourism in modern-day Utah. Pic otherwise channels historical errata and vague disapproval toward a mythic West’s degeneration. Hitting smugly superior notes at times, yet thematically opaque, docu will score further fest dates but struggle for broadcast exposure, partly due to graphic footage of animal gutting.

Principal interviewee here is Terry Albrecht, a Utah native who’s worked as a guide for buffalo-hunting visitors for three decades, though he’s considering retirement. He provides campout facilities, horses, meals, support staff and weaponry for seasonal “high rollers” who want to spend their vacation stalking and shooting slow-moving bison in public lands, as legally permitted during annual hunting season.

Early on, Schmitt’s occasional voiceover narration provides historical background on the immediate area (the nearest town, Hanksville, was founded by a follower of Brigham Young) and the relevant beast, which once numbered in the tens of millions but has been reduced to near-extinction by white settlers’ over-hunting.

But then we’re mostly stuck with verite footage of Terry’s customers, who are shown cracking racist or “dirty” jokes clad in full camouflage gear — not exactly flattering. Nor does one superficially genial wife, coaxed into hunting by hubby, make a good impression with her recitation of prior multinational exotic kills, or her preference for mall shopping over roughing it. “Why won’t the durn thing die?!” she giddily exhales, as her multiple bad shots only prolong the death throes of one stubbornly life-clinging bull.

Buffalo were killed off in the 19th century partly to destroy dependent Native American populations, we’re told. Sole “Injuns” seen here are kitsch feathered “braves” and nubile “squaws” on statues and billboards advertising motels or tourist traps.

Shots of cheesy audio-animatronic mannequins at historical “museums” (aka gift shops) and ever-waving Old Glory convey a sense not of the American Dream’s sorrowful degradation, but rather of contempt for those being portrayed. That would be fine if Schmitt (whose producer Lee Lynch gets a co-creator credit) had the courage to actually lay out a directorial, even political perspective.

But “Hunt” feigns observational neutrality even as it chooses to amplify and exploit ugly behavior. Shot over six years’ course, it suggests we’re simply watching Albrecht’s “last” hunting season and its aftermath instead. Once his thread ends, the shapeless pic needlessly extends itself with footage of another hunt someplace else, involving people never even identified.

Lensing is mostly rough and ready, except for numerous stationary landscape shots that aim for a meditative James Benning quality. While pretty, their contribution ultimately makes the feature seem pretentious and slow rather than poetic.

The Last Buffalo Hunt

  • Production: A Lynch-Schmitt production. Produced by Lee Lynch, Lee Anne Schmitt. Directed, written by Lee Anne Schmitt.
  • Crew: Camera (color, 16mm, DV-to-HD), Schmitt, James Laxton, Dave Fenster, Lee Lynch; editor, Schmitt; music, Rogier Pijpers; sound (Dolby), Ben Huff. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 27, 2011. (Also in Buenos Aires Film Festival.) Running time: 74 MIN.
  • With: With: Terry Albrecht, Dudley Elliot, Joe Roach, Ronnie Albrecht, Kelly Whytock, Debbie Holland, Greg Heil, Ron Taylor.