Josh Stewart in his writing and directorial debut The Hunted comes out swinging. Hard. (And, yes that boxing pun is intentional). He throws you deep into the woods and then turns off the flashlight. Fear comes at you from all directions. There is no place to hide.
I grew up in the South and spent the majority of my childhood playing in the woods. I know firsthand how majestic or frightening that world can appear. Your courage depends on the amount of light at your disposal along with your acquaintance to the strange noises surrounding you. The Hunted is one of the few scary films that extract a fearful response from its audience without the use of sound. Almost all scary movies rely on the support of a loud and abrupt score. The score is perfect in that it is so minimal it extends the level of fear to something unexpected.
I spent half of the movie with my tongue lodged against the roof of my mouth so I wouldn’t bite it. My husband, who was raised on scary movies, is usually immune to the classic scares, however at one point he nearly jumped into my lap. He may have even screamed once or twice although I couldn’t really hear him over my own screams so I can’t be sure. We both continuously yelled at the characters, and debated over what the proper response to their situation should be. Just when you let your guard down the hairs on the back of your neck rise up again. Even when you anticipate the scare Josh still finds a way to sneak up behind you.
The old adage of “write what you know” works well in Josh’s case. He is a hunter and is comfortable in the woods. Based on actual events the story brings with it an underlying chill because you can’t shake the fear off by discounting it as “just a movie”. That holds more power than you’re aware of until the end. You have no idea what will happen to the characters because you honestly don’t know what is happening around them. Instead of the typical Hollywood found-footage genre attempt, Josh is able to create the world using multiple cameras then we only see replayed footage when he needs the audience to see what was captured on film. We are in real time with these characters.
Josh slyly leaves a trail of breadcrumbs throughout the beginning, however the audience isn’t even aware that they are being led out into the darkness until it’s too late to turn back. Those hints are a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I completely fell for it. I never realized that I was learning bits and pieces of a story that was getting ready to unfold by slowly and gently grabbing a hold of me then refusing to let go. I went along for the rollercoaster ride and it was a fun one. Everything is believable. Even the very well played purposeful distraction that you aren’t even aware of. Once you are in, you are hooked and there is only one way out … keep watching.
Pairing Josh with Ronnie Gene Belvins was an excellent casting decision. They stood out with their bad boy roles in The Dark Knight so it was enjoyable to see them in a different light in The Hunted. Both characters have an abundance of strength, yet each showed a vulnerability that would have been easy to miss had the actors made it too subtle. It would have also been too obvious had they played directly on those weaknesses. They each created real, honest to goodness, living and breathing, relatable characters. All too often when you have two strong lead actors (or characters) there is a constant battle for attention. Josh and Ronnie equally share the screen and allow their characters to have balance by supporting one another.
Seeing Skipp Sudduth and Josh reunite on the screen was such a treat. If you are a Third Watch fan you’ll remember Skipp as “Sully” and Josh as “Officer Finney”. No matter the role Skipp always brings his characters to life in a way that is like finding a long lost friend. Even though he will always be Sully to me, I love watching him act. This was the perfect part for him in that he was able to bring his papa-bear side to the table. There are certain actors who have the preverbal “IT” factor and Skipp is one of those guys. He lights up the screen and (unless he’s playing a bad guy) puts you at immediate ease. It was difficult trying not to second guess his motives because I so desperately wanted to love him. He played each scene with just enough familiarity blended with mystery that you aren’t quite sure if you should trust him or not.
There is always tension when watching a scary movie for the first time, but you know it has something truly special when you feel just as much tension watching it a second time. When reviewing films I always try to watch them twice when I’m able to. The first time I watch a film for entertainment, and the second time I try to watch it from an unbiased and unemotional view. I ended up watching The Hunted both times curled up in a ball and hiding behind a pillow. I even jumped at the same scares. Even though I was expecting it Josh somehow managed to once again sneak up behind me.
The Hunted is an amazing debut for Josh. He has already cemented his place in the acting world, and has now shown that he can compete with any other writer and director. This film can stand on its own against any similar films in this genre. It is a fresh and unique take at really good scary storytelling. I must say I was very impressed with the story, characters, scares, location, and quality. All in all it is extremely well executed. If you can make my husband jump and curse at the screen then poor wimps like me don’t stand a chance. I can guarantee that the next time you are in the woods you will spend a lot of time looking over your shoulder. Hunters, and gatherers, beware.