SHOOT 'EM UP
HAPPY HUNTING (18)
Review: RJ Bland
Big game hunting is something that's been in the spotlight recently, with stories and photos shared far and wide of rich ass-holes paying for the privilege of hunting majestic animals wandering the Serengeti or something. I can only imagine how proud and macho one must feel to shoot a lion or a giraffe with a rifle from several hundred meters away. It's the kind of thing that makes you wish that humans were on the receiving end of such a hunt! Well, rejoice! Happy Hunting provides just such cathartic entertainment!
Happy Hunting received a limited theatrical release in the US last year but has now just been released on VOD here in the UK. The story focuses on Warren, an alcoholic drifter who is heading to Mexico to meet his kid from a previous relationship that he only just found out existed. On route, he stops at a small town called Bedford Flats for a couple of nights. It used to be a prosperous hunting community but is now a run down dust-bowl full of low-lives and degenerates – so Warren pretty much fits in! However there's something else going on here. The locals are in the midst of preparing for an annual 'festival' – namely by erecting creepy mannequins around town. When Warren chances upon one that looks unsettlingly like himself, you just know that things aren't going to end well. After being drugged by one of the townspeople, Warren wakes up in the middle of the desert with a handful of other poor saps. The local sheriff informs them that they have been selected to participate in the annual hunting competition and the bad news is, they aren't the ones doing the hunting - they are the game.
Happy Hunting is essentially a modern take on the 1932 thriller The Most Dangerous Game, albeit it's a fair bit darker and grittier than that. In fact, the whole human-hunting-human thing is something that's been seen more recently in franchises like The Purge and like those movies, there is a clear political undercurrent to proceedings. However, whereas in The Purge the 'hunted' were the poor and lower classes (the whole thing basically a big social cleanse), the victims in Happy Hunting are chosen because of their seemingly undesirable characteristics – namely addiction to booze, drugs, ethnicity or simply an assumed criminality. This isn't senseless killing, there are identifiable motivations, at least behind the selection of the victims. However, when all is said and done, you get the feeling that regardless of the selection policy, what it all boils down to is that some people just like an excuse to kill their fellow man (or woman). The division between Mexico and the US and the desire to cross from one side to another is also a theme that's cleverly explored and in Trump America, it's all the more pertinent.
Whilst the consideration of political and social themes are both interesting and commendable, they unfortunately can't paper over some of the cracks that begin to show the longer that Happy Hunting rolls on. We start on solid footing. The introduction of Warren as the down-and-out alcoholic lead makes for an intriguing start to the story. Experienced TV actor Martin Dingle Wall (Home and Away) does a solid job of playing the part of a man who is not instantly likeable and who quite frankly doesn't appear to be able to survive a game of table tennis let alone take on a bunch of hicks with guns. Whilst we never delve too far into his background, we are given enough to pique our interest and when he arrives in Bedford Flats, the array of weirdos and oddballs make him seem relatively normal and together. The supporting cast however are not nearly as interesting and are rather underdeveloped, especially the group who are being hunted – although that's partly because some of them don't last very long...
And whilst the first half of the film manages to build up the tension in a considered if albeit rather restrained manner, it hits something of a road-block after this. Once the 'hunted' are released into the desert, we begin a game of cat and mouse which starts off with violence and action but frustratingly doesn't seem to get out of second gear once the initial onslaught begins. In fact, most of the films action and tension are pretty much condensed down to a five minute spell right in the middle of the movie. It rediscovers its footing late on but it doesn't feel quite enough to satisfy the promise of the premise. The ending of Happy Hunting will also frustrate some (us included) for it reveals the films loyalty to it's desire to deliver a political message rather than staying truthful to the character and the storyline. When you are on the fence, an ending like that might leave a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth.
Having said all that, there are things to like and admire about Happy Hunting. Directorial duo Joe Dietsch and Lucian Gibson deliver on a cinematic level. Of course the desert setting lends itself to awesome vistas and wide shots but the duo imbue a real sense of solace and trepidation to proceedings. Their depiction of Bedford Sands is also a success too. The run-down, stuck in time settlement evokes memories of 70's nasties such as The Hills Have Eyes and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a place that has been forgotten – and neglected – by the rest of society. And things you ignore and repress often have a funny way of coming back and biting you in the ass. Redneck exploitation movies are nothing new (although they don't seem half as popular as they used to) but Happy Hunting is a worthy addition to that particularly grubby sub-genre. The most troubling thing about the bad guys here is that they seem relatively plausible in today's fractured political climate. You get the sense most of them feel justified in what they are doing and that the answer to society's problems is to eradicate any perceived weaknesses or threats. And we only have to look at history to see where that kind of thing leads to...