In the world of “Hunter Hunter,” director Shawn Linden’s backwoods horror movie, humans are carrion in the talons of nature. This survivalist thriller set in the Manitoba wilderness packs a gut-twisting punch in its final moments as a family of fur trappers (led by a grizzled Devon Sawa) faces the cruel indifference of the forest. While “Hunter Hunter” initially primes audiences for a man-versus-nature story about humans trying to outdo a cunning wolf, the film spirals into much darker terrain as the sun turns anemic, the body count rises, and hope fizzles out. While the grindhouse levels of shock and gore piled on in the third act may seem out of the cold blue, “Hunter Hunter” carefully lays the groundwork throughout for a brutal tale sure to please genre fans looking for a jolt to cap their 2020.
An almost post-apocalyptic vibe hangs over the Manitoba forest, bringing to mind films like “The Road” and the video game “The Last of Us,” soon to become an HBO series. That’s because this film’s primary focus, at first glance, is the relationship between father (Sawa, as Joseph Mersault) and daughter (Summer H. Howell, as Renee) eking out a life amid the elements. For a minute, as Linden almost tenderly captures Joseph and Renee as he teaches her how to hunt and skin wild game, “Hunter Hunter” even evokes the innocence of Deborah Granik’s survival story “Leave No Trace.” Back at home in their rural cabin far flung from civilization, mother Anne (Camille Sullivan) does the less gory grunt work, while Joseph traps the animals they try to peddle in the economically depressed nearby town.
But such a fairytale-like day-to-day is not for long, as the threat of a very hungry (and very angry) wolf hovers on the periphery of their remote lives. Linden’s screenplay smartly situates the film sometime in the 1990s, which means technology, outside of a few unwieldy walkie-talkies, will be of no use here. Determined to entrap the wolf gobbling up their livelihood, Joseph journeys deeper into the woods, only to stumble upon a horrifying, almost ritualistic mass grave of grotesquely positioned bodies that’s straight out of “True Detective” Season 1. Suddenly, that wolf seems like hardly the worst the Mersaults are up against.
A lakeside encounter with the wolf — an impressive CGI creation — leaves Renee and Anne shaken, and their dog missing. (Those sensitive to the grisly fates of pets in any horror movie will know where this is going.) Meanwhile, Joseph is nowhere to be found, and the local forestry, reminding Anne that their makeshift home on unincorporated land is outside their jurisdiction, is comically useless. Played by Gabriel Daniels and Lauren Cochrane, the authorities have a chummy rapport that Linden briefly explores. But don’t get close to anybody.
For those wondering what the hell happened to Nick Stahl, the ’90s child-turned-teen star whose tormented personal life derailed his big-screen career, well, here he is, in a spooky supporting role that gets the gears rolling toward the film’s grim finale. The job in drumming up the genre elements in the film’s back half feels quite rushed, with the wolf turning out to be just one of several red herrings, the early promise of character development among them.
A fierce young performer, Summer Howell recedes as the movie makes way for stomach-churning shocks. The film becomes almost nihilistically pointless, with the first hour basically all smoke and mirrors to introduce the harrowing last. The dialogue, for the most part, is plain and expository. (“Our daughter should be worrying about math and boys, not hunting!” Anne barks at Joseph.) But the actors ably carry the script, as if aware they’re pawns in a genre exercise.
The ending of “Hunter Hunter” could send those squeamish about viscera (human and otherwise) to the vomit bucket, but director Linden plants enough harbingers of doom throughout the movie’s lean and mean 90 minutes that it shouldn’t come as a surprise. While there’s no supernatural threat to be found here, the film has an uncanny atmosphere, conjured effectively by cinematographer Greg Nicod, who doesn’t flinch at cinematic violence’s inherently garish appeal. This corpse-littered movie grins its bloodied teeth in a final shot that’s sickly over-the-top and as hard to shake as a rusty bear trap gnashing on an ankle.
An IFC Midnight release, “Hunter Hunter” is available in select theaters, on digital, and on VOD Friday, December 18.