Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson
Writer: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson
Producer: Bryson Pintard, Jeff Kalligheri
Stars: Martin Dingle Wall, Ken Lally, Kenny Wormald, Connor Williams, Gary Sturm, C.J. Baker, Liesel Hanson, Kenneth Billings, Michael Tipps, Jeremy Lawson, Frederick Lawrence, Chuck Ramage, Sherry Leigh
An alcoholic drifter stops in a backwoods border town and becomes a moving target in their annual hunting festival.
News of a forgotten woman’s passing has alcoholic burnout Warren Novak on his way to Mexico to meet a son he didn’t know he had. A drug deal burn gone south and a few dropped bodies have him speeding there even faster.
Warren is in constant need of booze to quell the handshakes and hallucinations that come from withdrawal. With only a vague idea where he is even headed, Warren also needs an out of the way place to lay low while waiting for word on what to do next.
Warren stops a few miles shy of the border in the dying desert town of Bedford Flats. Once a thriving hunting community in days long gone by, the handfuls of locals and yokels left behind pay tribute to their past with a festival celebrating predator versus prey. Of course, these backwoods ‘billies are the predators, and Warren is one of their prey.
Crewed up with other captives, Warren is in a literal run for his life across sun-bleached sands and treacherous terrain. Warren isn’t sure what will kill him first: the spiked bats and sniper scopes following him from behind, or the alcohol evaporating fast from his body. If Warren can’t make it to Mexico, he might not survive the Bedford Flats bedlam. If he has to make his escape sober, he might not make it at all.
There are more alcoholic antiheroes in movies than there are grains of sand at Venice Beach. What makes Warren Novak of “Happy Hunting” unique is that you don’t want to see a kicked addiction ending in routine redemption. You want to see Warren chug down a fifth like Popeye does spinach so he can steady his strength for the vengeance ahead.
In spite of being a boozy bum quick to the trigger when his meth rip turns sour, Warren has an astonishingly relatable Everyman appeal, credited hugely to a well-tuned performance by Martin Dingle Wall. Wall strides across the screen with a style that brings to mind Bill Paxton with bits of Peter Berg and Michael Rooker added in. Cagily charming with world-weary eyes, Wall’s chalky American accent is so perfect, you’d never sniff out that the actor is actually Australian.
Warren and Wall combine for just one of the ways “Happy Hunting” stands out in the killer redneck subgenre already crowded by “Deliverance” riffs and “Hills Have Eyes” homage. Its premise isn’t original, yet the film makes up lost mileage with inventive setups for its inevitable face-offs. Instead of the usual rinse and repeat of panting and running protagonists pursued by cackling and shooting antagonists, co-directors Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson put more panache into the action. Warren plays MacGyver more than once to come up with a creative kill and it never feels as if the film is trying too hard to be clever for clever’s sake.
Shocked oohs and ahs fall from the mouth at a few marvelously explosive headshots and bullet bangs. Much less impressive on the post-production front are obvious instances of ADR as well as digital effects worth pulling back lips over teeth clenched in a squint. “Happy Hunting” is oddly hot for hazy clouds of browned crimson in its blood sprays and the less said about its CGI fire, the---.
Cartoonish concepts occasionally interfere with tension and some characters do the same. As Warren’s chief adversary, Ken Lally doesn’t quite go over the top with his performance, but he definitely plays at the peak. When engaged at full throttle, his sneer opens so wide and his brow jumps so high, he looks like a Tex Avery creation. Take a few dials down a notch here and there across the film’s board, particularly to lessen the levity, and “Happy Hunting” would be a far fiercer film.
“Happy Hunting” expends a lot of energy early and then hits a mid-movie lull, but authenticity in the atmosphere recharges the home stretch for an entertaining experience overall. Shot on location in California’s Bombay Beach, ably standing in for Texas, the extras accent the Salton Sea setting along with the suspense. There’s an unsettling intensity underneath everyone’s folksy exteriors. When that mood pumps straight through Martin Dingle Wall’s performance as he navigates unexpected shifts in the action, “Happy Hunting” takes a confidently big bite out of the competition when it comes to “Most Dangerous Game” thrillers.
Review Score: 80