Hunter Hunter. 2020.
Directed & Written by Shawn Linden.
Starring Camille Sullivan, Summer H. Howell, Devon Sawa, Nick Stahl, Gabriel Daniels, & Lauren Cochrane.
Julijette / MarVista Entertainment / Particular Crowd
Not Rated / 93 minutes
Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
You’ve been warned.
I’ve never seen anything director-writer Shawn Linden has done before. He’s now someone who’ll definitely catch my eye with his next project, whatever it is, because his latest feature Hunter Hunter is one of 2020’s biggest horror surprises. When publicists reached out with screeners for the film they all wrote the same thing: your mind will be blown by the last 15 minutes. They weren’t wrong, either. The film isn’t just a gnarly finale, the whole thing’s a stellar horror-thriller with a bunch of wonderfully terrifying moments. Also exciting to see Devon Sawa and Nick Stahl in a film together again. 388 Arletta Avenue, an underrated found footage horror, likewise starred Sawa and Stahl, though their characters share a lot of screen time in that versus Hunter Hunter. Linden’s able to use the two actors in an ingenious way that capitalises on their presence while also giving the film’s action over mostly to the fantastic Camille Sullivan, whose performance anchors all the screenplay’s best work.
Joseph (Devon Sawa), Anne (Camille Sullivan), and their daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) live life a lot simpler than most. Their house is a cabin in the woods. They go hunting and foraging for food, getting everything else from a store in town. They generally keep to themselves, as Joseph appears to be leery of people from town. When Joseph and Renee notice grisly animal remains in the forest one day they believe a nasty, hungry wolf has returned to the area. The concerned father and husband decides to go looking for it himself, in hopes of stopping it before the animal becomes a further problem. What Joseph discovers in the woods changes everything. He then becomes painfully aware that his family’s suddenly in far more danger than he ever could’ve imagined.
At first I thought Hunter Hunter was going to go a more supernatural route, preparing myself for an interesting twist on the ages old werewolf tale. Then the plot went wholly towards exploring the depravity of man. The wolf becomes a symbol juxtaposing man and animal, begging the question whether certain men are really anything more evolved than a hungry wolf. Joseph’s troubles are twofold. First, his insistence on isolated living being safer and less problematic than living in town clouds his family’s perspective of who/what is really dangerous. Most of all, his protectiveness over his wife and child, while admirable, ultimately puts Anne and Renee in a horrific, life-threatening situation. The patriarchal need of a father to be a protector here renders Joseph blind to the gendered troubles of the world in which they live, and, just as in the real world, it’s the women who are left to confront the true horrors all alone.
Although Linden’s style in Hunter Hunter is nothing at all like that of David Lynch, his film reminds me a little of Blue Velvet during the plot’s setup, in terms of examining the uglier, hidden bits of human nature and society. Joseph stumbles across a severed arm at one point, and the revelation of what he finds next feels like an inverse of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which Kyle MacLachlan’s character discovers a severed ear rotting in a field and later uncovers the hidden darkness in his quaint American town. Linden’s not showcasing the underlying horrors of American suburbia like Blue Velvet, he’s illustrating how even in the cold, lonely Canadian wilderness Joseph’s family cannot escape the very real, human horrors of men. Several times in the screenplay Linden touches on ideas of rural v. urban, attempting to compare and contrast the differences in people between the city and the country.
What eventually emerges is the idea that we all require community, to some degree. Joseph’s worldview seems to be that the city’s corrosive, that people who live simply as he and his family do are better adjusted to the real world, less complicated, and more trustworthy. However, the plot shows this isn’t the case, and that the animal in man can be found anywhere one finds man. The lure of modernity really shows up in the scene where Anne, frustrated by their rustic living, brings home a pamphlet about a new subdivision in town where she imagines them living a normal modern life. In another film, Anne’s want for a house might be about the desire for wealth, or social mobility. In Hunter Hunter, Anne’s yearning for modernity is more about safety than about commodities and material possessions. Joseph has effectively cut himself, and his family, off from the modern world, including the other people in it, and without that real sense of community—remember, even the cops can’t help with the wolf issue because Joseph’s family is technically not within any real jurisdiction—Anne is kept at arm’s length from a genuine sense of safety. And it later becomes Anne who’s the last line of defence between her, her daughter, and a terrifying evil landing on their doorstep.
The majority of Hunter Hunter is thematically concerned with the often thin line between man and animal. An important part of the screenplay is that even while Joseph is hiding the real threat from his family, Anne knows the danger is there; there’s also a sub-plot involving Joseph’s family land which has supposedly been theirs for “three generations” but Anne finds out this isn’t the case according to the “Land Management Act” in their area, all suggesting that Joseph not telling his wife the truth is an old pattern of behaviour. Although she thinks it’s just a wolf out there, she still knows there’s a threat. Women know the threat of a wolf, they don’t need to be told about it, nor do they require it be explained to them by a man. Women are always inherently—and sadly—prey for the wolf-like men among us, whereas men don’t know what it’s like to spend their lives constantly being preyed upon by those predators who lurk in the woods but some who also stand right out in the open. That’s why Anne can sense something not quite right as she frantically tries to get a wounded Lou (Nick Stahl) out of there; anywhere she can, so long as he’s not in the cabin with them. And that’s why the pieces quickly fall into place when she goes looking for her lost husband a little later.
Anne’s final confrontation with Lou brings the parallel between wolf and man full circle after she clamps his face in a trap like he’s an actual wolf. The finale follows through on the parallel of man with wolf as Anne treats Lou exactly like a hunted animal, to an extent many won’t believe until they witness the film’s closing 10 minutes with their very own eyes. The fast, brutal revenge of a mother and wife is as spectacular as it is gruesome, and a fresh change of pace as far as revenge in horror goes, which usually involves a man seeking vengeance, or entails the graphic dehumanisation of a woman before she’s allowed to exact revenge against her abuser(s). No matter how this film ended it was going to be grim. Linden chooses shocking over just grim. It’s the aftermath of Anne’s revenge that’s most compelling. When she walks away from the bloody scene she’s left in her wake, her silent, shattered demeanour says more than any dialogue could, allowing Camille Sullivan to sink right into the gravity of her character’s situation until the emotion’s overwhelming. People are rightly talking about the insane finale. There should be equal talk about Sullivan’s performance in those final few minutes, too; that’s what sells everything, from the plot’s conclusion to the effects themselves.
Hunter Hunter works so well as a horror-thriller it doesn’t require any bells and whistles, or a deep reading of its themes. As I’ve written countless times before it’s even more exciting when a solid film further offers enough theme to urge us to read deeper. Linden’s screenplay doesn’t have to beat us over the head with any of its ideas, they’re on the screen laid bare, and powerful performances—most specifically Camille Sullivan’s—bring every bit of them to the forefront. Not to mention a serious sense of suspense builds up throughout via Linden’s excellent direction, alongside impressive editing courtesy of John Gurdebeke and Chad Tremblay.
In a day and age when misogyny continues to plague women there’s plenty of fiction, from literature to the big/small screen, beginning to explore toxic masculinity and other elements which play into perpetuating society’s most nasty values. Not all of them are as smart or effective as Hunter Hunter. Linden takes what could’ve been a very simple, very drab plot and shapes it into something viciously exciting that, just below the surface, is a microcosm of much larger issues regarding gender and violence.
Joseph stands in for the well-meaning men who, through their own need for heroism, unintentionally put women in danger, or inadvertently contribute to a culture of misogyny (or rape culture, et cetera). Anne and Renee become potential casualties of Joseph’s heroics, more so because he lies to them about the seriousness of the threat lurking near their home. What occurs is a lesson about how even those most well-meaning men cannot comprehend the gravity of their actions, and what the consequences of their actions can mean for actual women. Anne manages to come out on top, yet she’s forever marred by a profound sense of loss and eternally warped by what she was forced to do because of what was done to her. A stunner of a human horror with one of the most bittersweet, unforgettable finales in recent memory.