The Hunters is a very confused film. It isn't quite sure what it wants to be and as a result isn't truly satisfying on any level. Perhaps it speaks to some hesitation on the part of Chris Briant, who chose this as his directorial and acting debut, but the film has a tough time settling in and establishing an identity of its own. Is it a hard look at the way in which damaged men bond or a gritty survival thriller? We don't have to pick because Briant certainly didn't.
Briant is Le Saint, a French cop who has just come home from war with signs of PTSD and a steely determination to throw himself completely into his job. When he isn't being shouted at by his boss (Terence Knox), he commits himself to reopening unsolved cases and looking for common links. He soon finds himself in the middle of one such case when a chance meeting drops him right into the middle of a nature reserve that has long been used as a private hunting ground by a group of hunters (Steven Waddington, Tony Becker, Jay Brown and Xavier Delambre).
Unfortunately for Le Saint, the hunters are after much larger prey than what the reserve can normally provide. You see, they hunt people for sport. They have been for a while. Their trophy room, littered with assorted limbs and other body parts, screams of their dedication to the cause. When Le Saint gets wise to the depraved nature of their extracurricular activity, he finds himself on the run with no allies and no place to hide. Surely someone from the police station will notice his absence and send in a team after him...right? Until then, he will have to be very wily if he plans on surviving the game (that's for the Rutger Hauer fans in the crowd).
For a film that culminates in a man being hunted in the woods by rifle-toting killers, I have to say the most engaging aspect is the first act which takes its own sweet time setting the scene and introducing the key players. Make no mistake about it; the first 45 minutes inch along without generating much fear or tension. They do however, give us a pointed look at the frustrating drudgery that has turned a bunch of seemingly ordinary guys into the remorseless killers that they are. The film doesn't ask us to condone their actions but at least one of them (Waddington's character) remains mildly sympathetic through his acceptance of the gravity of his actions.
With its initial focus on the hunters, the film led me to believe that I would continue to watch events unfold from their point of view. I thought this would be a nice change of pace since so many thrillers perch us on the hero's shoulder and ask us to blindly accept the one-dimensional nature of his antagonist. Unfortunately my enthusiasm was short lived. As soon as Le Saint runs into the hunters and is captured, the film switches back to hero-cam and is reduced to a series of standard-issue thriller tropes that are staged without much suspense or ingenuity. Aside from one seriously odd tussle in the trophy room, the confrontations between Le Saint and his captors are routine and forgettable. At one point, he actually takes on two of the killers who are flanking him just by taking turns shooting at them...a lot. The scene manages to somehow go on too long while delivering a truncated impact.
The performances are also shortchanged as the best actors in this enterprise find their characters demoted as the film wears on. Waddington and Becker, who were largely responsible for setting the hook in the first act, are sidelined in the second half as they turn into mindless puppets that use Briant for target practice until he decides to return the favor. At least Waddington gets a chance to project his guilt with great effect during the climax. The less said about Knox's shrill, one-note performance the better. Glee fans will note Dianna Agron's face and name plastered on the DVD cover but should keep their excitement in check. She makes a couple of brief appearances in the film as someone who our hero can flirt with. If she feels wasted in the role, it's because her character is fairly superfluous.
This brings me back to Chris Briant who pulls double-duty as captain of this ship, both in front of and behind the camera. While his performance as the troubled hero is perfectly serviceable, I feel he is stronger behind the scenes. I know I've taken issue with the manner in which the film eventually sinks in clichés but that shouldn't take away from the measured approach taken in the first half. By focusing on the most intriguing characters (not Le Saint) and maintaining a consistent mood, Briant could have given us a different spin on the survival thriller. As it stands, his debut is a bit schizophrenic and not terribly memorable.