Let’s talk people lost in a desert, literally and metaphorically. In recent movies, there’s Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, in which the lovely Suki Waterhouse is exiled into a morally parched wasteland to learn hard lessons about revenge, cannibalism, and family values. It’s a deliriously messy swirl of post-apocalyptic aesthetics with a fantastic female lead. Waterhouse holds her own against Jason Momoa, Jim Carrey, and even Keanu Reeves struggling with some of the worst dialogue since Point Break. Mad Maxine. There’s also Grave Encounters director Colin Minihan’s It Stains the Sands Red, one of those rare horror movies more concerned with character development than horror. It’s a wickedly clever variation on the buddy road trip, with zombie mythology standing in for a woman’s bad choices constantly two steps behind her. Brittany Allen’s comedic but poignant performance drives the movie across the desert through sheer force of will, with a little help from vodka and cocaine.
These are both uneven movies, definitely worth watching, but neither comes together as well as Happy Hunting.
The first thing you need to make a movie about someone lost in the desert is a compelling someone. Suki Waterhouse and Brittany Allen, for instance. Happy Hunting presents for our consideration the handsomely disheveled Martin Dingle Wall, channeling the hangdog sincerity of Martin Donovan, the wry intelligence of Dean Winters, and the weathered leading man good looks of Tom Cruise. He’s an actor who can express a lot without dialogue, which is important since Happy Hunting spends a lot of time just showing us his face. He’s playing a character of few words.
It’s clear from the first scene this is a movie about people being hunted down in the desert. Why? By whom? The movie will get to that, but first it establishes Wall’s character, Warren, as someone whose past has caught up with him. He needs to get somewhere on the other side of the desert. Also in his way is a debilitating addiction to alcohol. Until he has his first drink of the day, his hands shake uncontrollably. That’s going to make it hard to get through a punishing survival scenario in the desert under a hunter’s crosshairs. Sobriety will kill him long before dehydration gets a chance. The hunter can get in line.
Warren is a man forced to dry up and confront his past, but his foil in Happy Hunting is a character lapsing back into addiction and grief. They cross paths and collide and cross paths again, presumably as aspects of the same person, as manifestations of each other’s struggle. Happy Hunting reveals itself as a movie about the two sides of any addict. It’s about their interaction. In the end, it’s just you and your addiction, beaten, bloodied, and exhausted, in a luridly lit underground hell, sharing a drink and lighting your cigarette with a road flare. Powerful imagery for what was going to be a simple horror thriller.
I don’t know how much of Happy Hunting’s metaphorical interpretations are intentional, mainly because it’s doing a great job of being a top-notch horror thriller. Contrast this with Darren Aronofsky’s Mother, which is such a mess that you know it’s supposed to be an allegory. As social commentary, Happy Hunting does what the Purge movies can’t quite manage: a story about how we treat the weak and unfortunate. Specifically, a story about how we look down on addiction (Matthew Vaughn’s terrible Kingsman sequel falls flat on its face trying the same thing).
But it’s not a preachy movie, and it works just fine as an uber violent cat-and-mouse thriller with exciting set pieces and memorable characters. First timers Joe Deitsch and Louie Gibson co-wrote and co-directed Happy Hunting, which has been doing the rounds at film festivals and is now available online. They set a tone early on with bleak cinematography, tight editing, and a hint that this might be too absurd to take seriously. They hold that tone until the bitter end. The ambitious Bad Batch gets spoiled by the time it’s over, and It Stains the Sand Red loses some of its luster when it gets contrived and silly. But Happy Hunting stays on target as a pitch-perfect black comedy that isn’t afraid to make a point.
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Uber violent cat-and-mouse, but with a point