Schwarz and Clusiau cannot help but let their feelings for their principals come through the camera. Hume is shown to be an empathetic steward and is impossible to root against, particularly because the desire for rhino horn is abjectly stupid and the animals themselves are passive and peaceful. The part of Trophy that he occupies is uncomplicated, though compelling. Glass lives in a different world. Trophy opens with him and his young son on a deer hunt, sharing a loving moment together that gains resonance once Glass off-handedly mentions the terrible and abusive relationship he had with his own father. There is respect for parts of his way of life, but his motivations remain a ball of contradictions. Glass sees no distance between the love he has for the lambs he raises and their inevitable sale to the slaughterhouse, in the same way he claims to love the animals he hunts. This is all covered in his mind by his Christian belief in dominion over nature, and no small amount of look-at-me-now-dad insecurity. The film doesn’t have to include shots of safari staff cleaning up the dead elephant, shot by Glass, before he takes his triumphant picture atop it. Nor does it have to include him defending himself to a post-Cecil the Lion protestor who pointedly challenges Glass’ self-congratulatory paternalism towards African people. The film is challenging him by observing him, but Glass’ quiet certainty is likely beyond personal interrogation.
The greatest contempt within Trophy is saved for others. The thorniest parts of the film take place amongst villages in Zimbabwe where people are in real danger from marauding lions, and control of this predator population is the difference between survival and extinction. Farmers and ranchers scraping out a living are seriously impacted when goats turn up missing in the morning, to say nothing of the possibility that a lion with some ingenuity breaks into a home and makes off with a child. The border between the human and animal kingdom is as fraught as plenty of national borders, but what’s not fraught at all is the class warfare porn that Trophy openly revels in. Glass is in the process of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to make his dreams come true, but his vision is of stalking his prey through the savannah. A trip might result in no kills, and he accepts that possibility. The film shows what someone without Glass’ scruples looks like, and what their money is being spent on. I’ve seen plenty of documentaries about people with questionable or absent ethics and I’ve never felt more burning hatred than for a guy who is brought a hissing crocodile to shoot in the head from point blank range, and then celebrates with his drunk friends like he’s actually done something. The Afrikaaner owner of this safari shares Glass’ blubbering sympathy for the animals on his reserve, but where Glass can conceivably find something beautiful in the hunt, nothing worthwhile is happening when grotesque oil speculators and their dyed trophy wives barely have to leave their cabanas to murder an animal.
Trophy offers that kind of boiling rage alongside more complicated feelings towards its principals. This softens Glass’ weird zeal about big-game hunting, a phenomenon that Schwarz and Clusiau resist romanticizing or condemning. They fairly depict the loaded final breaths of the elephant Glass kills, like it can’t believe this is how it’s going out. Trophy isn’t making an argument for or against anything as much as it’s looking clearly at the way that humans turn the natural world into a subject to be wrestled into submission. Glass would call that submission correct and good while Hume would call it cruel and pointless. Both would ask the viewer to look. A-