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Review: Hunter Hunter Is a Survival Thriller with a Haunting Stinger in Its Tail

Shawn Linden skillfully draws us into the narrative before springing a series of startling traps—of both the narrative and literal variety.

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Hunter Hunter
Photo: IFC Films

Shawn Linden’s Hunter Hunter is a survival thriller with an unusual streak of empathy and a nasty and suggestive stinger in its tail. It’s the 1990s, and Mersault (Devon Sawa) is staked out in the Manitoba wilderness with his wife, Anne (Camille Sullivan), and 13-year-old daughter, Renee (Summer H. Howell). The family lives in an austere cabin and relies on hunting for meager food and income, and the precariousness of this situation is wearing Anne down. In sharp contrast, Renee is eager to follow in her father’s footsteps, and you may wonder if the father is passing a sort of isolationist trauma down to the daughter (shades of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace). Linden fashions tense scenes that establish Mersault’s resentment of outside society and need to be out in the woods testing his limits, regardless of whether or not he’s endangering his family in the process. And these tensions are soon exacerbated by the return of a wolf that targets Mersault’s traps, eating the captured prey and bringing the family to the brink of starvation and financial catastrophe.

Survival stories are often celebrations of machismo, of discovering the primordial heart of the wild and, by extension, oneself. Linden understands his protagonist to be ferociously competent yet pitiably single-minded. In his commitment to adapting to this land, Mersault is ironically un-adaptable, as he can’t imagine a different life even as he steers his family to ruination. Consequentially, Linden manages to link us empathetically to every member of the family, rather than merely favoring Mersault and his determination to remain in the wild.

Anne isn’t written as a one-note nag of a wife, but as a poignant fount of common sense, and Renee is shown to be torn between being a hunter and a normal little girl. In one particularly moving scene, Renee begs to go with Mersault to hunt the wolf and he initially consents, though he sends her back to the cabin when the wolf appears to be nearby. On the way back, panic grips Renee as she’s faced with the dangerous reality of hunting, which disrupts her father-appeasing fantasies. As Anne and Renee increasingly bear the burden of Mersault’s hunt, he comes more and more to resemble a commanding yet fatally absurd Ahab figure.

Linden skillfully draws us into this narrative, emphasizing the nuts and bolts of hunting and the terrifying anonymousness of the drab and shadowy woods, before springing a series of startling traps—of both the narrative and literal variety. Mersault disappears for stretches of Hunter Hunter, which becomes a frightening story of how Anne desperately cleans up her man’s mess, embracing a life that’s coming to disgust her in order to live. This irony is memorably embodied by a truly anguished scene in which a starving Anne caresses a beautiful, old, fat rabbit before breaking its neck for dinner. Linden’s sensitivity is continually surprising, whether he’s dramatizing Anne and Renee’s torment or ruing the death of the rabbit or of a young fawn, or enjoying the camaraderie of Fish and Wildlife rangers.

This empathy is refreshing in its own right, while also ruthlessly lowering our guard. The wolf, revealed in jolting glimpses, isn’t the most dangerous animal in the woods, as this family is targeted by another menace as Hunter Hunter deviates from traditional survivalist tropes, drifting into the realm of neurotic and nihilistic horror. This new menace cunningly conjoins Mersault’s and Anne’s worst fears: of the invasion of the private woods by outsiders and of Mersault’s manly pride as an inadvertent agent of death, respectively. Anne’s final act of ultraviolence is hauntingly understood as revenge as well as a wail of rage, an annihilating reaction to a bleak lifestyle fashioned by sick and selfish men. Linden lends an old and sexist cliché—hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—visceral and queasy credence.

Cast: Devon Sawa, Camille Sullivan, Summer H. Powell, Nick Stahl, Gabriel Daniels, Lauren Cochrane, Jade Michael, Erik Athavale Director: Shawn Linden Screenwriter: Shawn Linden Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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