Just a week after this screened/streamed at Fantasia, FrightFest responded with The Hunted – in both films, a woman is pursued through the woods in a scenario that is at once a pared-down riff on the Most Dangerous Game genre and an all-encompassing indictment of the patriarchy. There have, recently, been quite a few films that fit this pattern, including the hallucinatory Revenge and – at the other end of a scale – a few entries in the needless I Spit On Your Grave franchise. As with any cycle or oft-told tale, there’s a risk that repetition dulls the point. But strong execution and a few new ideas work wonders.
Here, we open with a white-haired tough woman (Simone Milsdochter) telling a ‘Company of Wolves’ campfire tale illustrated by animation – director/co-writer Vincent Paronnaud is best-known for the film of Persepolis – that sets up the threat of self-regarding, vicious, toxic masculinity and identifies its most likely victim. Enter Eve (Lucie Debay), a French woman having a bad day at work (thanks to men) supervising a project in some European country (the location work is Belgium but quite a few actors are Irish). In a bar, she tries to blow off a persistent pick-up artist and is rescued by the Guy (Arieh Worthalter, in a mercurial star turn), who positions himself as a white knight with a twinkle in his eye but is – as we twig well before Eve does – a psycho intent on co-starring Eve with his putupon sidekick ‘Andy’ (Ciaran O’Brien) on a found footage snuff movie. They’ve done this before, but the Guy is too forcefully bipolar and ‘Andy’ too feeble to be very good at it.
After a typical escape and recapture, the situation is upended because the Guy demands his sidekick kiss him while they’re driving through the woods at night. The car slams into a boar and Eve runs off into the (beautifully-shot) woods with the ill-matched killer couple on her tracks. For the most part, Hunted is a tight, suspenseful and credible survival picture – even if, like so many lost-in-the-woods characters in movies, none of these people know that basic tip to follow running water downstream if you want to get back to civilisation. As opposed to many female revenge films, Eve becomes angry and tough but doesn’t instantly pick up woodland skills – struggling up and down forest hillsides, and improvising with what comes to hand. Her pursuers are believably battered and injured, powering after her on desperation and malice, though it becomes clear that ‘Andy’ – who takes the most punishment – has been dragooned by the Guy, who could have had a string of ‘Andys’ before using up this one (Andy might even be his name). It’s not overexplained, but we get a sense of how these predators work and what their particular game is – and Eve (an on-the-nose character name) is singled out as a representative woman to take the heat of the Guy’s seething misogyny.
The last reel takes a turn for the surreal which slightly reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, as new sets of characters (including the tale-teller from the prologue) hove in view, and we visit new environments which make it seem as if this battle of the sexes is ranging across time and space … the campsite of the grim survivalist and her potential Andy of a son (Ryan Brodie) … a misty, smoky region where Special Forces types are war-gaming, which allows for a splash of woad-like blue paint to transform Eve into a barbarian warrior … and an in-construction community where the brutal struggle tears through a flimsy show home, nixing a sale being pitched to an appalled young couple. The meat of the story is fairly familiar – but it’s still an excellent little variation on its theme. Co-written by Léa Pernollet.