★★ / ★★★★
The revenge-thriller “Hunted” tells the story of a woman who meets an alluring man in a nightclub. When the flirtation is over, she believes they are about to head to his place. Goal. But no, they end up in the woods instead. You think you know where this is going—“revenge-thriller,” a random hook-up, “the woods”—and you’d be partly correct. You see, these elements must be present to get us to think a certain way and therefore expect specific plot developments to unfold.
It is a clever little tale, in parts, which opens with another woman—credited only as The Huntress (Simone Milsdochter)—telling her young boy (Vladimir Ryelandt, Ryan Brodie) about the woods they’re camping in. It is breathing, it is sentient, spirits reside in it. It is a protector of the innocent. Director Vincent Paronnaud, who co-wrote the screenplay with Léa Pernollet, leaves the gate with enthusiasm, vision, and a wonderful sense of visuals: The Huntress’ story is told through a curious mix of live-action and animation, like a comic book that’s alive. The bar is set so high, the rest of the picture, while peppered with inspired moments, struggles to catch up to it.
The charming man is never given a name. He is played by Arieh Worthalter. The performance reminded of a Jack Nicholson-lite, unafraid to look ugly, crazy, and savage as long as we are terrified. (And the performance would not be Nicholson-like if humor—dark humor—were completely removed.) Particularly interesting is when the man converses with other people and attempts to put on an act of normality. As hard as he tries, Worthalter portrays the man as incapable doing so, his mask of what he believes is a friendly person always on the verge of slipping. This psychopath is uncomfortable watch—which makes him a fascinating specimen.
The woman in danger is named Eve. Lucie Debay is given the more controlled performance of the two leads although there are instances when she is required to equal his insanity. I enjoyed that Debay’s Eve always has something going on in those eyes. We learn only a few details about Eve’s personal life during the exposition and, like most heroines in revenge-thrillers, she is written to make unwise decisions from time to time for the sake of building another opportunity for yet another extended chase sequence, but I felt annoyed of the protagonist. Like the antagonist, there is a curiosity in her. I wished their twisted relationship were explored further, outside of a classic cat-and-mouse game.
Paronnaud takes risks during the latter half. By then our expectations are in place and then he subverts it—not completely but just enough for some who remain hanging on for the ride to let go and get engorged in the pandemonium. There are symbolisms with animals, hallucinatory sequences, slow motion. Lodged in between are moments of violence: throat slashing, a finger in a gash that requires stitches, broken noses, hands around another’s throat.
Although I felt there is a rhythm to it, I never bought into the dance. I admired it, like I would a well-executed scientific experiment, but I did not feel connected—deeply—with all the goings-on. I smiled at the fact that the writer-director created a film that need not be made but he did anyway because perhaps he needed to exorcise something. Is the work making a feminist statement? Does it wish to comment on the corruption of sexuality between genders in modern times? Is the goal quite simply to create a lovechild between revenge-thriller and arthouse? I don’t know, and I don’t care. But I sure am I glad I sat through it.