The “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale has been retold in popular culture more times than the number of innocent questions Red asks the wolf play-acting as her grandma. In most tellings, one detail remains consistent: Human civilization is safe, and nature isn’t. Vincent Paronnaud’s Hunted disagrees. Human civilization is arguably less safe than nature. At least in nature, everybody’s standing on even ground. In contemporary cities, danger lurks around corners and in nightclubs, and occasionally wears a guise of chivalry to ensnare victims, as happens to the film’s protagonist, Eve (Lucie Debay), as she pulls up to a bar to blow off steam from a wretched day.
Eve, being lovely and alone and thus a target for male entitlement, immediately attracts an obnoxious suit-bro who aggressively tries buying her a drink. She declines. He buys anyways and gives her shit when she fails to act appropriately gracious. As the altercation threatens to escalate, another man—a suspiciously handsome man (Arieh Worthalter)—intervenes, sends the bro packing and wins Eve’s affections. They head off to his car. They fool around. A second man (Ciaran O’Brien) hefts himself into the driver’s seat, locks the doors and drives off as Eve protests in increasing fear. So begins a game of “chase” that leaves the trio stranded in foreboding woods over a period of several days, in which the men track Eve, Eve evades them, blood is spilled and some assorted weirdness transpires.
And that’s the pitch. There’s precious little fat on Hunted, for better and worse. Unlike so many modern horror movies that can’t help spelling out their subtext to the detriment of the audience, Hunted lets the subtext speak for itself through action. Grant that “Little Red Riding Hood” is so familiar and has had its bones picked dry over the ages that “subtext” in this case becomes text through literary osmosis. If you’ve seen even the crappiest reinterpretations of the classic fable, like Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood or Hoodwinked, then Hunted holds no secrets under the hood for you: It’s “Little Red Riding Hood” with direct thematic ties to rape culture.
What gives the film a singular identity within that long-rehashed canon is the ferocity of its filmmaking. Paronnaud, pivoting from writing and directing alongside Marjane Satrapi (a la Persepolis and Chicken with Plums), builds out Hunted with escalating tension—starting from the moment Eve goes through her terrible work day and moving on to her considerably worse night on the town. The dagger slides between the ribs when she and Worthalter’s nameless character meet: He’s funny, charming, handsome and surprisingly (perhaps suspiciously) good at chasing off Eve’s harasser with but a whisper in his ear. At a glance, his intercession merely looks badass, which is almost certainly the point. It works not only on the harasser and on Eve, but on the audience. This is all in keeping with his ruse. He’s a wolf. Playing the knight in shining armor is part of the thrill for him.
The absence of a name takes on multiple readings. Worthalter could be playing any man with a history of misogyny and a violent streak, or maybe wolves just don’t have names at all. Either way, his anonymity adds to his effect as a human monster. Frankly, the moments where Worthalter performs his friendship with O’Brien’s (also unnamed) accomplice—or attempts to persuade Eve that he’s only kidding and they’re not actually going to violate and murder her in the middle of nowhere—are more terrifying than when he’s simply being himself. Honesty’s always the best policy, even for remorseless sadists. And besides, he just isn’t a good liar after that first lie. Eve doesn’t buy what he’s selling and, practiced as he is at hunting, she’s resourceful and determined to get out of the forest alive. Worthalter’s work here is calculated; Debay’s is unbridled.
The push-pull between their dueling performances does a lot of Hunted’s heavy lifting, largely because they’re the two dominant characters in the film. Others appear here and there, and O’Brien has reasonable screen time (if little meaningful presence) for a chunk of the plot. But Paronnaud, along with Léa Pernollet and David H. Pickering, has written the screenplay around Debay’s interactions with Worthalter, because in a “Little Red Riding Hood” riff, who aside from Red and the Wolf really matters? Hunted doesn’t exactly rewrite the original tale, but it doesn’t have to. It just has to have teeth, and Paronnaud’s kept those canines sharp and savage.
Director: Vincent Paronnaud
Writers: Vincent Paronnaud, Léa Pernollet, David H. Pickering
Starring: Lucie Debay, Arieh Worthalter, Ciaran O’Brien
Release Date: January 14, 2021 (Shudder)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.