Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Jordan Downey
Writer: Kevin Stewart, Jordan Downey
Producer: Ricky Fosheim, Kevin Stewart, Jordan Downey
Stars: Christopher Rygh, Cora Kaufman
A medieval monster hunter vows vengeance against the elusive creature that killed his daughter, but encounters an unexpected complication.
Much of the hullaballoo surrounding “The Head Hunter” has to do with the film being a rare example of an elbow grease indie that actually looks like a million bucks, figuratively speaking. Director Jordan Downey, who previously helmed two “ThanksKilling” movies as well as his fan-made “Critters: Bounty Hunter” short, reportedly produced “The Head Hunter” on a budget of just $30,000, which is an impressive filmmaking feat no matter how any naysayer frames it.
Before running off to replicate “The Head Hunter’s” accomplishment however, consider questioning whether any favorable bookkeeping may be affecting that figure. If trivia floating around is true, Downey’s small Californian crew shot primarily in Portugal, possibly in Norway too, on a schedule that added up to 30 days. Even assuming as few as three or four people were present most days, I’m not convinced $30k can cover food, airfare, and international lodging for a month and still leave sufficient funds for costume/prop/FX fabrication, payroll, processing, and other expenses.
A skeptic may also wonder whether publicly publishing the low budget, which festival films almost never do due to distribution deal concerns, was an intentional marketing tactic. Would you have heard of “The Head Hunter” if outlets including this one weren’t hyping how the movie did so much with so little?
What I don’t mean to do by cocking a curious eyebrow is foster an unfounded theory about creative accounting. Truth is, even if “The Head Hunter” shot for three times as much at just shy of 100 grand, any objective viewer would still have to conclude producers got more than their money’s worth given the level of dazzling cinematicism on display. Everything above only reinforces how “The Head Hunter” catches lightning in a bottle through invested ingenuity, even though its gaunt narrative leaves more than one thing to be desired.
Norwegian actor Christopher Rygh, and literally no one else, features exclusively for 99.9% of the film. Looking like Jeremy Gardner if he became a member of The Night’s Watch, Rygh plays ‘Father,’ a medieval monster hunter still grieving the death of his beloved ‘Daughter.’
Wearing an amazing armor suit designed by Andre Bravin that is camera-ready for “Game of Thrones,” Father dedicates his days and his nights to slaying creatures hoping he’ll eventually encounter the elusive beast that slaughtered his daughter. After several cycles of hunting, healing, and mounting more monster heads on his remote hut’s wall, Father finally spies his prey. Yet when he decapitates this particular head, unexpected alchemy causes the creature to assume a surprising new form.
“The Head Hunter” runs short for a feature at just 72 minutes, but you wouldn’t want it to be any longer. In fact, for a slow-moving character study with a dearth of dialogue, one could convincingly argue that the film is too long.
Due to restricted resources, none of the ax-cleaving, sword-swinging fights are actually depicted onscreen. “The Head Hunter” craftily cuts around kills with a carefully framed camera compelling imaginations to fill in visual blanks. The good news is Jordan Downey has the creative chops to convincingly pull off many of these smoke and mirror sequences without it looking like a purely budgetary contrivance.
The bad news is a movie can only get away with keeping all of its action completely offscreen for so long before redundant dullness starts setting in. To compensate for its inability to illustrate anything of concrete consequence, “The Head Hunter” composes content from close-ups of Father performing menial tasks such as sawing wood, hammering his armor on an anvil, mixing muddy salve for his wounds, sharpening wooden stakes, staring at shadows or sounds in the distance, and so on. If your mouth started yawning while reading that list for five seconds, imagine how disinterested eyes can glaze over while watching those activities for the better part of an hour.
Christopher Rygh’s intensely quiet performance, predominantly built on expressive physicality, demonstrates he is a highly capable actor. Photography, editing, and sound design are so razor sharp they can practically cut eyes as well as ears, proving Jordan Downey definitely knows how to make a polished picture. If only they had meatier material in the script to play with, “The Head Hunter” wouldn’t be emblematic of a short film idea forcibly stretched into a feature-length production.
“The Head Hunter” is unquestionably easy to appreciate as a technical achievement that grassroots filmmakers should study for inspiration. At the same time, without the budget to consistently point its camera in the most intriguing direction possible, “The Head Hunter” has a harder time sustaining engagement as substantial entertainment.
Review Score: 55