‘Trophy’ Review: Brutal Doc Takes Aim at Big-Game Hunting

This thoughtful documentary examines the complicated paths and tricky compromises behind animal conservation

Those who are sensitive about cruelty against animals are advised to steer well clear of “Trophy,” a documentary that begins with the killing of a deer on screen and only gets more hard to stomach from there. This deer is shot by a man named Philip Glass (no relation to the minimalist composer) while he is training his young son to kill animals.

The Texas-based Glass is a sheep breeder who is after what hunters term the “Big Five”: elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino.

Next we meet the large-spirited John Hume, a retired property developer who maintains a rhino-breeding ground in South Africa. Hume is in a tough position: The South African government called a moratorium on the selling of rhino horns in 2009, after which the illegal poaching of rhinos for their horns skyrocketed.

Hume has stockpiled rhino horns for sale, but he cannot legally make money off of them until the ban is lifted. The way that Hume sees the situation, if he cannot make any money from the horns then poachers are going to decimate the endangered rhinos and push them toward extinction in a fairly short amount of time.

As “Trophy” goes on, Hume is set up as the misunderstood hero of the film — while Glass hangs himself over and over again on camera and becomes its villain — but there are two other figures profiled here who are in a more in-between category morally: Chris Moore, a wildlife officer who funds his conservation efforts through money from game hunters, and Christo Gomes, who earns most of his living by catering to American hunters. In the world of animal conservation, the phrase “if it pays, it stays” has become the bottom line for which animal gets to survive.

Co-directors Shaul Schwarz (“Narco Cultura”) and Christina Clusiau survey a lot of what can only be called ugly Americans here, like a heavy-set woman who talks about wanting to shoot a giraffe and is willing to expand her trophy room for that purpose. Dr. Craig Packer, an expert on animal conservation, sounds particularly contemptuous when he speaks of the American hunters who take all vestiges of sport away from hunting and make it into something like shopping, bagging their “big” kills in two- or three-day sprees rather than taking any real risks out in the wild.

Hume cannot contain his anger as he sees his rhinos killed by poachers, and the awful irony presented in “Trophy” is that animal-rights activists who don’t fully understand the larger situation are ensuring that some animal species will be destroyed illegally rather than saved legally with the money Hume could make from the rhino horns. It is clear that the filmmakers are on Hume’s side here, and no convincing opposition to him is given any real time or credence on screen.

The case of Glass is made far more troubling. He describes his mother telling him not to shoot red birds when he was a boy, but this only compelled him to shoot a red bird; his account of why he was moved to do this sounds very close to how serial killers speak about their victims.

It is only toward the end of the film that Glass moves briefly from being odious to being pathetic as he reveals his vexed relationship with his father, who would stop the car when he was young and make him get out to shoot whatever animals might be near them. And of course Glass is a man who distrusts the federal government and says he won’t have “bureaucrats” stopping his “right” to kill rare animals. He also relies on the Bible as justification for killing them.

There comes a point early on in the film when a woman says that crocodiles are mean and so she doesn’t mind killing them for handbags and such. We have seen crocodiles snapping and looking menacing shortly before she says this, but later in the film there is a close-up of the eye of a bound-up crocodile, and this is the most important shot in “Trophy,” because it argues for the life of this animal as much as for that of a gentle giraffe.

Saving endangered animals is not a matter of sentimentality and lifting one up above another. It involves facing hard facts and brokering some compromises, and “Trophy” makes us fully aware of this.