Big Man With a Gun
You want to know what scares me? It’s the man with the gun. That isn’t the fun fear of the Halloween season, the entertaining chills we get from ghosts, witches, and silent mask-wearing automatons. Believe me, for my last review of October, I wanted to get into a horror movie that’s clever, entertainingly stupid, fast-paced, deliberate, restrained, or gory as hell. They’re out there, to be sure, but none of them got their claws into me.
Armed real life is what scares me. After I drop my son off at school, I wonder if I’ll be notified of an active shooter. When some knucklehead cuts me off in traffic (and they so often drive massive pickup trucks) and I reflexively throw the finger, I wonder if they’ll retaliate by shooting at me. I wonder if when I’m grocery shopping, seeing a movie, doing literally anything, I wonder if I or someone I care about will get caught in the crossfire. I check for alternate exits and see if anybody is acting squirrely. Some people call that situational awareness. I call it a piss-poor way to live.
But horror is supposed to be fun, right? Sometimes, yeah. It’s cool to see a creature featured, and to see a bunch of unattractive attractive people get filleted. Horror is also supposed to be a reflection of our anxieties, and sometimes we need a nasty piece of work to rub the horror in our faces. Night of the Hunted might not have anything terribly original to say, but the way it says it hits like a bullet.
Alice (Camille Rowe) has a problem. It might be more accurate to say she’s got a plethora of problems. The first is that her relationship with her partner Erik (Aleksandar Popovic) is shaky. He’s a good guy, but he’s a little clingy, a touch annoying. Why is he like that? They’ve been trying to have a baby, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
Alice’s next problem is with her colleague John (Jeremy Scippio). They work for a pharmaceutical company and presumably pull down money that is good, not great. Between the pressure from home and pressure from work, Alice thinks she needs to do something, anything, to relieve it. That’s why she’s having an affair with John. Does John know her troubles with Erik? Perhaps some of them, but we get the sense quickly that Alice is good at compartmentalization.
Alice’s most immediate problem? It begins when she and John are driving back from a work conference. Being that it’s the middle of the night (Why couldn’t the company fly them out?), both of them are feeling punchy. They stop at a remote gas station to gas up (Strange how the low fuel light came on after John just gassed up.) and get a cup of the life-giving elixir known as coffee.
Then Alice is shot. A chunk of her arm is just…gone. She drops to the ground as bullets pepper the little convenience store. When John comes in to see what the hold up is, he’s dropped, too. Behind the convenience store counter is a walkie-talkie. The man (Stasa Stanic) on the other end of the radio has a sniper rifle. He’s got both a vendetta and very good aim. Alice will have to learn what drives him and find a way to survive.
To be sure, there are fun sniper movies out there like Phone Booth and the criminally underloved Grand Piano. Night of the Hunted is a well-made thriller, but it sure ain’t fun. In fact, it’s a nasty piece of work. Director Franck Khalfoun isn’t interested in glorifying the violence or making a fun night at the movies. His aesthetic here is grimy, sweaty, desperate, and whenever possible, Khalfoun tries to amp up the suspense. He realizes that there’s only so much of that you can do, and he made a couple of wise decisions by keeping the film to a trim 95 minutes and by allowing the audience to breathe with well-placed dialogue scenes.
It’s usually a bad sign when a movie has four or more writers. That’s not quite the case here with Khalfoun and co-writers Ruben Avila Calvo, Glen Freyer, and David R.L., who have written a pretty ingenious screenplay with something to say. At some point, they must have walked into a convenience store to figure out what items were available to advance plot, character, and set pieces.* The characterization isn’t as sharp, but it’s not bad.
The cast is a small one, and it’s really a two-hander between Camille Rowe’s Alice and Stasa Stanic’s Sniper. Rowe has the harder role and delivers a smart performance.We get a good look inside Alice’s head and learn she’s more than the standard-issue suffering feminist hero. She’s flawed, a little selfish, and a bit of a dick. She’s also brave, resourceful, and does the right thing when it counts. There’s an extended sequence later on that threatens to bring up the “Alice would be happier if she were more maternal” trope. Rowe is too smart for that, and she knows that human compassion doesn’t simply equal a suppressed desire to be a parent.
As far as Stanic’s Sniper is concerned, I was initially put off when he started ranting about vaccine mandates. A rampaging right-wing gun nut is not quite the most compelling antagonist** in my book, and I think the writers realized that. They did the old “Want to know how I got these scars?” trick from The Dark Knight and transformed the Sniper into an unreliable character. That’s a smart move. Part of me wishes that Stanic had been able to play more emotional notes beyond rage and contempt. Humanizing a character, no matter how loathsome, makes them more interesting. Perhaps that wasn’t the plan. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter why a mass shooter is upset. All that matters is that they’re channeling their seething rage into harming others.
I’ll never be menaced by a vampire or pursued by hordes of zombies. The odds are a hell of a lot better that I’ll get shot by some loser with too much disposable income. That concept scares me, and that’s the concept that Night of the Hunted targets, the almost exclusively American horror of a raging man with a gun.
*In all fairness, Alice never lights the convenience store on fire to get the attention of passersby.
**Though you don’t hear much about rampaging left-wing gun nuts. Nobody is shooting up a supermarket and yelling about universal basic income.