The premise of Hunted is one we’ve seen countless times before; a woman goes to a bar, meets a man who seems nice, and, before she knows it, finds herself abducted and speeding towards certain death while he laughs maniacally alongside her. Typically, in these kinds of movies, the woman is punished for being “loose,” or for taking a chance by, I don’t know, making out with a guy she fancies? (The nerve!) Here, it’s immediately clear that isn’t the case thanks in large part to the strong, three-dimensional female lead, and the fact the bloody thing starts out with a clear denouncement of the male species.
Hunted opens on the image of a woman, with major Jane Lynch energy, and her young son as they sit around a campfire sharing spooky stories. The mother’s genuinely unnerving tale unfolds via nifty animation so lovely I’d happily watch a whole movie comprised of it. Hers is a story of female victory in a male-dominated world, of wolves and maidens joining forces against their shared oppressors. When her son asks if there are still wolves nowadays, she reassures him that no, there aren’t. But, unfortunately, as she warns him, there are still men. Cut to Lucie Debay’s Eve, running on a treadmill (always a neat way of letting an audience know this is the Final Girl) before being chastised by her domineering male boss.
Eve is a self-sufficient gal, living away from home in an unnamed European country (both of the leads are Belgian, but the setting is left unspecified, adding to the discombobulating atmosphere). She’s also a bit of a commitment-phobe, who dodges her boyfriend’s calls and refuses to take the next step by moving in with him. After ditching her phone at home, Eve heads to a bar to get some literal space from her fella, and is accosted by a slimy guy with a Tommy Wiseau accent (he even refers to her as “my girl” at one point). Thankfully, she’s soon rescued by a ruggishly handsome stranger with a strange American twang.
This is the unnamed suitor (Arieh Worthalter, listed in the credits only as “The Handsome Guy”) who will charm her into leaving with him only to turn the tables once they start hooking up in his car. From then on, the situation turns very quickly, but there’s a twist when Eve escapes the clutches of this man and his accomplice (played with charming, schlubby energy by Irish actor Ciaran O’Brien), differentiating Hunted from countless similar endeavors that simply put women in peril and leave them there – or, worse, torture them for 90 minutes before finally allowing them to escape, bloodied and irrevocably damaged but still doubtlessly at fault for what’s happened to them.
It’s rare to see a movie like this with such defiant female energy, particularly one that’s directed by a man, though Vincent Paronnaud, who’s making his feature debut here, penned the script with Léa Pernollet (also making her feature debut). Parannaud has previous, having co-written and co-directed alongside Marjane Satrapi on the celebrated feminist work, Persepolis. Although Worthalter’s antagonist is a twisted villain – homophobic, perverted, a litterbug and, naturally, a shameless misogynist – Paronnaud ensures there’s no voyeurism gleaned from his treatment of Eve. In fact, the homemade snuff videos, of which he’s pathetically proud, are only fleetingly glimpsed, making them that much scarier considering imagination is always worse than reality and, again, we’ve seen enough female torture in movies to last us a lifetime.
That’s not to say Hunted pulls its punches when it comes to violence; the film is gleefully gory, particularly as it ramps up to the gut-punching finale which involves, among other things, the wildest property viewing ever committed to celluloid. The violence is only implied at first, via some strategically placed bloody footprints, before being unleashed in all its gory glory. Among many other things, we learn there are several uses for duct tape that have nothing to do with packing boxes. The meaning of the title is two-fold, but it takes a while for predator to become prey, making the payoff even sweeter and more satisfying. Women watching this movie will find it particularly cathartic. Plenty of the action takes place in daylight too, as the characters stalk each other through a massive forest that’s beautifully photographed but disconcerting at the same time. It’s a wonderful location, ideal for this kind of cat and mouse scenario.
There’s a dark fairy-tale element to the proceedings, from the wolves mentioned in the beginning to the appearances from several different woodland creatures and of course Eve’s eye-catching red coat, a pop of color among the autumn browns, which affords her more than a passing resemblance to Little Red Riding Hood. Both Eve and her assailant let out guttural cries like animals, their desperation incentivizing them to continue fighting even as they go days without food, water, or shelter in the forest. Hunted is a rough, grimy, dirty film but in an immensely satisfying way. Watching Debay’s ice-blonde hair get ruined is devilishly gratifying, as is her transformation, via blue paint, into an almost Braveheart-esque warrior intent on getting revenge at all costs.
Her performance is peerless and utterly committed. The Belgian actress bears a striking resemblance to Kelly Reilly in Eden Lake, a doomed character that got similarly messy over a night in the woods, but this is a character she makes entirely her own. Worthalter makes for the perfect foil, pitching his performance slightly higher and more over the top while chewing the (beautiful) scenery. Then again, his unnamed psycho is completely unhinged so, once you get on his wavelength, Worthalter’s bizarre choices make a strange kind of sense. Considering this is a highly unpredictable, consistently thrilling, and endlessly inventive movie, it’s astounding these two actors are able to not just keep up with the madness but actively overcome it so they can shine through as performers in their own rights.
Although it starts off leaning heavily on dodgy tropes and horror cliché, Hunted emerges as a viciously violent, efficiently entertaining, and nastily impressive piece of work. It will leave a mark, whether stained in blue or red, that’s hard to shift.
WICKED RATING: 9/10