Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: The Hunters (dir. Chris Briant, 2011)

I know it’s a little strange to review a film two years after its release, but RS and I watched this a couple of nights ago, and I wanted to post a little something about it. In fact, this isn’t really a review of a film so much as a review of a bizarre piece of marketing. We found The Hunters – an indie film, director Chris Briant’s first feature film – on Netflix as a recommendation based on what we’d previously watched. The blurb promised:
“Before parting ways after high school, six friends venture into a forbidden part of town and explore what they think is an abandoned fort. But the adventure soon turns bloody, and the kids realize they’re trapped in a nightmare of the goriest sort.”
It probably tells you a lot about what RS and I usually watch that a) Netflix thought a film like that would suit us and b) we agreed and watched it. RS was more enthusiastic than me, I must admit, as I've seen more than enough teens-in-peril films to last me a lifetime. But we decided to give it a go. Bear that blurb in mind, though, as I’ll come back to it shortly.

The Hunters begins with two men arriving at what looks to be an abandoned fort in the woods. They have outdoorsy-type gear with them, and they appear to be away for a weekend. One of them, Ronny (played by Steven Waddington), is uncomfortable, claiming to hear shouts and screams coming from the fort. His friend, Oliver (Tony Becker), laughs off his concerns, making some jokes about Ronny being trapped in his marriage and his daily life. As they get their gear ready, some other men arrive at the fort.

I think it’s worth pointing out here that none of the characters so far are high school age – but more on that later.

The film then cuts to another character, Le Saint (played by Briant himself), a war veteran who has taken a job with the police force. In the early scenes, Le Saint clashes with his boss Bernard (Terence Knox) about whether or not to pursue a series of missing persons cases. Le Saint believes there is a pattern to the disappearances, but Bernard wants him to drop the case and concentrate on his actual job. Le Saint is troubled – both by the restrictions placed on him at work and by flashbacks to Iraq and to his (presumably) ex-girlfriend. He meets a young woman, Alice (Dianna Agron), and is obviously attracted to her, but keeps a cold distance (cue more flashbacks to his ex).

Again, none of these characters are high school age. Not a single one. There also is no group of ‘six friends’ at any point in the film.

Le Saint’s story is then intercut with Oliver and Ronny’s. We see Le Saint’s growing frustration with the administration role he has been forced into, alongside scenes of Oliver’s unsatisfying day job and Ronny’s disillusionment with family and home life. Le Saint is instructed to take on the task of protecting a foreign agent, which necessitates a meeting at Fort Goben – a place that Bernard insists is just a hangout for ‘homosexuals humping on each other’ and drug-users, but that Le Saint suspects has something to do with the missing persons cases. When he arrives to meet the agent, we see that Fort Goben is the same place that Oliver and Ronny go to at weekends.

Shortly after arriving at Fort Goben, Le Saint runs into Oliver, Ronny and their friends, and begins to discover the truth about what is going on at the fort. Things do, eventually, ‘turn bloody’ (but with no high school kids).

The Hunters is a very muddled film – in more ways than one. The two plotlines – Le Saint’s story, and the story of Oliver and Ronny – don’t always gel, and each one feels like it should have been developed further. Potentially rich backstories are hinted at for all three of the main protagonists, but these don’t really go anywhere. Le Saint’s relationship with Alice is confusing, and it’s not clear what the point of this is – outside of highlighting Le Saint’s troubled past and inability to connect with others. What makes this more confusing are a series of scenes with Alice and her friends, hinting at the woman’s disillusionment with small-town life – culminating in some angsty dialogue towards the end of the film, after Alice’s boyfriend takes her to Fort Goben as a birthday surprise. Again, this potential storyline is not developed in any depth or detail. Personally, I would happily have paid money to go and see a film just about Oliver and Ronny. Their Fight Club-esque reasons for being at the fort, and how they ended up working with Bernard, William and Stephen (the other - dramatically different - men at the fort), made, for me, the most compelling and intriguing story, but it was too diluted by the competing plotlines.

The setting of the film is also confused. Though the film never explicitly states where it is set, the ‘police force’ that Le Saint joins and the ‘small town’ Alice speaks of seem to be American, both visually and in the way people talk about them. However, the ‘abandoned fort’ is quite obviously nineteenth-century European. In fact, Fort Goben is a real fort – Fort de Queuleu in Metz, which was named Fort Goben by the occupying German forces during WWII. The building is so obviously a European WWI/WWII fortification that it makes it difficult to reconcile this with the American ‘cops’ in the rest of the film. It’s a beautiful location though, and if The Hunters did nothing else, it made me want to visit Fort de Queuleu.

Finally, the direction… again, this was a bit of a jumble. There were some fantastic shots and set-pieces. When Le Saint is confronted by the reality of what has been happening at the fort, there is an extraordinary sequence (no spoilers) that is possibly the film’s high-spot. However, other sequences, such as Le Saint’s flashbacks to his war experiences, are more lacklustre and some scenes are overlong.

Ultimately, The Hunters is a reasonable debut indie film with a great premise and some decent acting. It didn’t blow us away, but it wasn’t the worst film we’ve seen recently.

But the fact remains that it is not the film described in the blurb. There are no high school kids, no group of six friends, and no ‘adventure turned bloody’. At first, we just had a laugh about this and assumed that either the Netflix summary had been written by someone who hadn’t seen the film, or that the synopsis had been switched with another by mistake.

But then I watched the trailer for The Hunters on imdb. Watch this video, bearing in mind what I’ve said about the film’s plotlines…

Erm… what?? The trailer is made up almost exclusively of scenes from the end of the film – when Alice and her boyfriend arrive at the fort. There is no mention of Oliver and Ronny – though there are a couple of shots of Ronny interacting with the couple – and no hint of the (main) storyline involving Le Saint. The trailer even adds a plotline that isn’t even in the film: ‘they wanted the perfect escape’. And, of course, the trailer’s most blatant lie is the recasting of Dianna Agron (who has around 15-20 minutes of screen-time overall) as the ‘star’. This is carried on with the DVD cover. The image at the top of this post is the film’s original poster; here is the DVD cover:

Woah… what’s with the massive image of Alice’s face? Why is she dominating the cover? Worse, why does the back of the DVD case have this blurb (which is complete fiction)?
“Alice and her friends are approaching the end of the school year where their dead-end lives will end and the chance of a new life will begin. Before heading off to college they spend one last day together in the woods, the one part of town that has always been off limits to them growing up. As they stumble upon what they thought was an abandoned fort only to find the walls dripping in blood and decomposing body parts lying around, they are startled to learn they are now a part of an undercover investigation. After being told to get out of the woods they realize they're trapped, for the Hunters, who call the fort home, never let anyone out alive.”
I repeat: complete fiction.

And that’s when I paid a bit more attention to the dates, and everything started to make sense. The Hunters was released in 2011, with distribution by Lionsgate. I’ve listened to enough indie filmmakers to know that there was a good chance that distribution didn’t come straightaway, and that there may have been a gap between the film being made and its DVD release. Sure enough, the film’s website reveals that it was filmed in 2009, edited and taken around festivals in early 2010.

When Dianna Agron was cast in the minor role of Alice, she was an unknown actress who’d had a few TV roles (Heroes, Veronica Mars, CSI, Numb3rs). The original promo trailer for the film reflects this:

But what happened shortly after Agron shot her scenes for The Hunters? She landed a role in Glee. Suddenly, this little, low-budget indie flick could link itself to one of the biggest phenomena on US TV. And, of course, the first season of Glee had already aired by the time The Hunters saw the light of DVD-day, so it could bank on the new legion of Quinn Fabray fans looking out for Agron’s other work.

I don’t know if I want to blame the filmmakers for this. The original trailer and promo reel, made to take around festivals and send to distributors, is a perfectly honest ‘teaser’ of the film. Their website, while praising Agron’s work in Glee, is far from a cash-in on the actress’s new-found fame. My suspicion is that we have the distributors to thank for this – aside from the prominence of Alice, the main difference between the two trailers is the word ‘Lionsgate’ across the screen. The ‘honest’ trailer was made prior to distribution; the Dianna Agron one made after a deal had been signed (and I have no idea whether that deal was, in part, helped by Agron’s casting in Glee). So what we have is a cynical, corporate attempt to cash in on an actor’s later work by repackaging an earlier film with blatant dishonesty.

And if you still don’t think there’s anything tacky about this, consider the revision of Alice’s age. Both the Netflix summary and the DVD case claim that Alice and her friends are just finishing high school and about to go to college. This is not the case at all. Alice is clearly in her early twenties, and she and her boyfriend dress and act like young professionals, rather than college kids. Agron was 23 when she made this film, and is playing a character her own age. But, as soon as she was cast in Glee (also at the age of 23), Agron became known for playing a teenager, a high school cheerleader, and so the marketing for The Hunters recast her character as a school-leaver – regardless of the fact that this isn’t true.

Ultimately, The Hunters is an indie thriller and a directorial debut, and had we watched it at a film festival we would have considered it a decent addition to the programme. As a Netflix recommendation of an evening, it really wasn’t bad. But the film itself is completely overshadowed by the absolutely shameless marketing strategy.

And the sad part? We would've watched the film based on the original synopsis and trailer anyway - in fact, it sounds a hell of a lot less cliched than the Agron-heavy one.

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