When Joe (Devon Sawa) and his daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) find a severed critter leg in one of their traps, the latter seems legitimately afraid. That’s not to say a family living off the grid in the woods (enough where the teen might never have interacted with anyone besides her parents for the entirety of her life) shouldn’t fear a wolf stalking around the same areas they do for food and fur. Something in her voice—and later her mother’s (Camille Sullivan‘s Anne)—simply makes it seem like there’s more to the story. My first inclination was to assume another child was killed not too long ago because the trio treat the discovery of this beast as the return of a nemesis that changed their lives forever.
Like so much of writer/director Shawn Linden‘s Hunter Hunter, however, any clarity to this point is left out. Why do they live like this? A quick conversation about Joe being afraid of people and Anne loving him enough to embrace the lifestyle deflects focus more than gives answers. Why is this wolf such crucial a boogeyman? Existing on federal land wherein the nearest municipal authorities can’t interfere due to jurisdiction problems (if Joe and Anne are even legally allowed to stay there—explained away by the notion he inherited the property) means a predator such as it is their problem and theirs alone. Linden therefore insulates them as rogue elements that will end up risking everything if ever they sought outside help. So they survive without it.
While fueling such mysterious origins to them being here does augment the tension and suspense of what follows narratively, it also makes it difficult to truly get to know the characters. Linden explains impulses as far as Joe wanting to do everything himself and Anne wondering if it’s time to assimilate Renee into society so she can choose whether the only life she’s known is actually what she wants, but tragedy strikes before they can reconcile the disparity. I guess I should say that tragedy becomes a possibility since Joe is way too cautious to not anticipate danger. He worries about the wolf (assumedly for obvious reasons despite their heightened state of unease) and vows to kill it by morning. Off he goes while Anne and Renee wait.
The film unfolds very slowly. The women try to be careful as the wolf roams within eyesight and Joe treads softly into the distance. Besides a couple asides to rangers Barthes (Gabriel Daniels) and Lucy (Lauren Cochrane) having to save two yuppies from the bears they keep attracting, the majority of what’s on-screen is a quietly palpable anxiety due to their fear in nature evolving into fear of man since the result of discovering this wolf gnawing on a severed hand is two-fold. One: it has a taste for flesh. Two: it can’t have done what its trail leads Joe into. Is he therefore still after the wolf when he sets out or has his target changed to something worse? If so, Anne must follow suit.
If Hunter Hunter were a horror film, Joe would ultimately double-back so they could make their last stand together. But Linden isn’t interested in convention. He’s interested in mood. This truth is both good and bad because the taut atmosphere draws us in just as his refusal to provide context lets us wander. We shift focus so often from Joe to Anne to Barthes that we can’t help but connect them. And since we know so little about each, that connection must be the climactic reveal. They’re less important than their mutual destination—it’s why anyone talking about the film mentions only its viscerally brutal conclusion. It’s like Linden had the idea for what’s to be their fate and worked to pad the eighty-minute journey that unleashes it.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Where things go astray, however, is the fact that such clear pathways are about action rather than motivation. These characters are thus moving forward in ways that seemingly service the plot above their own identities. And the result does more to say this type of life can never work than it has us appreciating who Joe, Anne, and Renee are and what they are capable of doing. Add the decision to set the film in the 90s (to avoid cellphones and have an iconic Walkman with bright headphones highlight the finale’s carnage) and it always feels as though Linden is working towards something bigger than he is. The pieces crave something more than reality provides. Memorable or not, the end isn’t surprising.
We know very early that the wolf isn’t their only enemy. To introduce Nick Stahl‘s wounded stranger at the eleventh hour isn’t thus to inject ambiguity, but to cement what we already know. The suspense dissolves to be replaced by anticipation. It’s no longer a matter of “if,” but “when.” How Anne gets there is still effective, though. We get a sense of her hopelessness as this life Joe chose for them proves that her survival is ultimately up to her. That this realization leads into miserablism to the nth degree will be tough to swallow for many audiences, but the bleakness of the start doesn’t pretend like we should expect anything else as the film desperately seeks to blur the line between man and animal.
Because it’s so spare and slow, however, nothing is really said about it. Hunter Hunter is a case of style over substance and your ability to appreciate that more than denigrate it will be the sole barometer of whether you leave the theater satisfied. I consider myself in the former camp even if by a slim margin. That so much is thrown in for no reason other than setting the stage for its climax is frustrating, but the whole’s construction having that same solitary impulse also means we aren’t walking in with our eyes closed. Linden isn’t tricking us. He’s not making us think we’re getting something only to supply something else. This film is devoid of deception. It’s just also lacking much purpose below its surface appeal.
 Devon Sawa as Mersault in Shawn Linden’s HUNTER HUNTER. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Film.
 Nick Stahl as ‘Lou’ and Summer H. Howell as ‘Renee’ in Shawn Linden’s HUNTER HUNTER. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Film.
 Camille Sullivan as ‘Anne’ in Shawn Linden’s HUNTER HUNTER. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Film