Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Shawn Linden
Writer: Shawn Linden
Producer: Juliette Hagopian, Shawn Linden, Neil Elman
Stars: Camille Sullivan, Devon Sawa, Summer H. Howell, Nick Stahl
A hunter¡¯s search for an elusive wolf turns up an even greater threat for his family living in a remote woodland cabin.
I was all set to give ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± the cold shoulder. From the outside it looked like a routine thriller asking for the time of day and I couldn¡¯t be bothered to check my watch. For one thing, I¡¯ve seen more films that take place in remote woods or isolated cabins than I can possibly recall. The idea of sitting through another one didn¡¯t exactly light a fire of ¡°I¡¯ve got to see this!¡± excitement.
To be even franker, the movie¡¯s stars weren¡¯t magnetizing me either. I know Devon Sawa has enjoyed renewed popularity with the horror crowd thanks in part to fan interactivity on Twitter. To me though, the last movie I really remember him for is ¡°Final Destination,¡± and that came out in 2000. I saw Sawa alongside John Travolta in ¡°The Fanatic¡± (review here) just over a year ago and forgot he was even in it until I checked his IMDb page just now.
I also know Nick Stahl experienced some personal troubles that saw a career marked by big movies like ¡°Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines¡± and ¡°Sin City¡± hit a complete standstill around 2011. When he returned in 2020¡¯s worst B-movie, ¡°The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson¡± (review here), I assumed Stahl had been banished to the realm of disposable DTVers. Viewed with my cynicism, this was another external sign identifying ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± as a forgettable forest-set yarn starring actors whose better roles were behind them. I figured the film would drown an unnoticed death in a straight-to-streaming sewer.
Word of mouth caused me to reconsider. I kept hearing two predominant things about the movie. The first was that it was ¡°bleak, bleak, bleak.¡± If you were going to give ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± a go, you¡¯d better be buckled up for grimness that would leave you feeling colder than the woods where the story is set.
The second thing was that ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± was supposedly very, very good. The movie landed on several ¡®Best of 2020¡¯ lists. Readers also recommended it to me. My skepticism remained, but the time had come to accept I couldn¡¯t keep ignoring ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± any longer. The film and its fans wouldn¡¯t let me.
What subsequently drew me in to ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± was how deftly writer/director Shawn Linden injects robust believability into what¡¯s actually a small setting. ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± starts with a look at life for The Mersault Family. Joseph, his wife Anne, and their young daughter Renee run a failing fur-trapping business from their cabin in the Winnipeg woods. During the setup stage we see Anne struggling to sell animal skins at a local store. While she wonders whether a suburban home near civilization might be a better way to feed their outdoorsy family, Joseph trains Renee in his trade.
We¡¯re as up close and personal as his daughter when Joseph shows Renee the art behind gutting an animal to preserve its meat. Joe goes on to teach the girl how to mask her scent, bait traps, and properly peel a pelt off a carcass. That¡¯s not the most exciting exposition for action-hungry dispositions. But these details are what breathe life into the film¡¯s world. We buy Joe as a seasoned hunter because we see how meticulously he treats these tasks, not because he¡¯s merely a mean-looking man in a Carhartt jacket toting a rifle.
Devon Sawa delivers his dialogue with tones, head tilts, and steely gazes that easily double the base value of Linden¡¯s written words. Sawa gives Joseph an ¡°I¡¯m the man of this house¡± gruffness while peppering in glimmers of compassion that also establish how much he cares for his wife and daughter. Even though his aversion to people drowns out how much he hears when Anne expresses concern for their wilderness wellbeing, Joe still wants to do right by her. Yet when something happens that forces Joseph to face a potential end to living off the land, his alpha instincts to be provider and protector risk opening everyone to a greater threat. Sawa is so good at conveying this frustrating conflict within Joseph, it¡¯s a minor shame the story requires taking him off the table for a time when ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± reconfigures to focus on Anne and Renee confronting a fearsome wolf.
I¡¯m not sure how much of a spoiler it is to reveal what ends up happening. I think it¡¯s abundantly clear you can¡¯t get to ¡°bleak,¡± ¡°chilling,¡± or any of the other terms popularly used to describe ¡°Hunter Hunter¡¯s¡± darkness with just a wolf. Since there¡¯s one more main player who has yet to be mentioned, you can probably figure out how terror develops. Suffice to say, ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± adds a procedural murder mystery on top of slow burn horror to author a distinct story in an often indistinguishable subgenre.
Is ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± a ¡®Top Ten¡¯ thriller? I don¡¯t think so. Drama development drags in spots and there¡¯s still an air of familiarity that can be intermittently distracting. Nevertheless, the movie has one of the more intriguingly realistic takes on the ¡°Most Dangerous Game¡± premise that horror has otherwise done to death. It¡¯s not always intense, though the film¡¯s peaks are more than capable of commanding attentive eyes.
Performances are excellent as well. You might come for Sawa and Stahl, but you¡¯ll stay for Camille Sullivan. She turns Anne into a multilayered person through sighs, posture positions, and expressions that say so much with silence. By the time ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± arrives at a gruesome conclusion that will curl your fingers, you¡¯ll be squarely in Sullivan¡¯s camp, eager to see her headline more horror.
I also want to throw upward thumbs at Gabriel Daniels and Lauren Cochrane. They play easy-to-overlook supporting roles as two rangers. Despite not having big parts, Daniels and Cochrane have easy demeanors and engage in folksy interactions that humble them into highly affable people.
Anyone like me might see the generic title, seemingly redundant setup, and low-wattage cast and make the same errant assumption that ¡°Hunter Hunter¡± is run-of-the-mill horror. It¡¯s not. It may not make your ¡®Best of¡¯ list either, but you¡¯ll certainly carry it with you in your mind¡¯s eye. If not for the full movie, then certainly for the vicious visuals of the finale.
Review Score: 75