Vincent Paronnaud’s stylish grindhouse revenge movie opens with a campfire tale. In a striking animated sequence, which reflects the director’s background in comic books, we hear the story of a young girl spared by a pack of wolves from becoming a blood sacrifice at the hands of a priest. As the heightened world of folklore is replaced by the real world, we are left in no doubt that the imprint of this tale, in which predatory men are defeated by ancient powers innate in the natural world, has left its mark on the landscape. The story of Hunted is a brutal and visceral one, which at first glance has little time for anything as fanciful as a fairy tale. However, there are points at which the film hints that our protagonist might be calling on something ancient and timeless. It is these intersections with myth that elevate the movie above being a simple, mean-spirited tale of bloody cruelty.
Protagonist Eve (Lucie Debay) begins the story already under siege by men, whether it’s her badgering boss, her controlling partner or just a creepy dude at the bar. Just when she thinks she might have found someone close to a kindred spirit in a stranger (Arieh Worthalter), she finds herself in mortal danger. The man is a sadistic rapist and murderer with a penchant for videotaping his victims. Along with his easily led accomplice, they whisk her away into the heart of the forest, intent on making this the last night of her life. What follows is “ordeal horror” of the most gruelling kind. The cat-and-mouse game of escape and recapture is constantly unnerving. As Eve is broken down by stress and fear, she must rely on previously untapped reserves of energy and rage within herself to overcome her tormentors.
Arieh Worthalter is a shockingly unpleasant villain, with the ability to switch from affable, bordering on suave, into a despicable monster at a moment’s notice. As a stand-in for the evils of the patriarchy (and this is definitely a story about violence and gender), he is second to none. This cunning psychopath is able to constantly pull the wool over people’s eyes, enjoying the benefit of the doubt at every turn while hapless rubes dismiss Eve’s side of the story out of hand. As an audience member, these scenes are teeth-rattlingly tense, and equally frustrating.
The archetype of the vulnerable figure fleeing through the woods is such a staple of horror that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a by-the-numbers bloody thriller. At first, there is little to suggest that we are operating in the realm of myth and allegory beyond the protagonist’s red-hooded coat and suggestive name. However, subtle hints throughout the movie, and the appearance of intervention by animals, including a wild boar and a raven, suggest that there is something altogether more significant at play. Adding to this, the Irish/French/Belgian production features a plethora of accents, creating a feeling of displacement and adding to the overall surreal atmosphere. Towards the end of the movie, Eve appears to embrace her mythic role, becoming a wild-haired avenger that could have stepped straight out of an ancient saga.
Lucie Debay’s performance in these scenes is transcendent, and a moment where her transformed self briefly encounters “civilised society”, in the form of an estate agent (what else?) is extremely funny. The physical effects are gruesome and realistic, with horrific wounds sustained throughout. This means that the sense of very real danger is never diminished, even as the film begins to embrace its more otherworldly side towards the final third.
The main criticism to level at Hunted is that it has little to say that is new. As an extended examination of toxic masculinity and violence, it is extremely effective. However, it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen these themes explored through the medium of people chasing each other through the woods. What sets it apart from others in the genre is its visual flair. Paronnaud’s partnership with cinematographer Joachim Philippe has created a heightened world, which, combined with some excellent performances, elevates these genre clichés and lends them the feel of true mythic archetypes.