A nasty little piece of work that surprises with both its topicality and incisiveness, Happy Hunting unfailingly reminds us about the social problems we try to ignore that just won’t go away. Violent crime, drug trafficking, addiction and homelessness are just a few of the issues that loom large in Joe Dietsch and Louie Gibson’s crafty debut feature, but perhaps most surprisingly, this turns out to be a darkly satiric thriller rather than a boring, moralizing drama. Without much marketing muscle, it’s not likely to be widely seen in theaters, but a broader audience surely awaits on streaming platforms.
Scratching the dark underbelly of American society, the filmmakers give us alky vet Warren (Martin Dingle Wall), who finds himself at a dead end when he becomes too strung out to continue cooking meth in his kitchen for some local dealers. So when he discovers that his ex-wife has just died in Mexico, leaving behind a daughter he never knew about, Warren makes a rash decision to rip off his employers and make a run for the border to retrieve his child.
Ruthless social satire.
His next miscalculation is stopping just short of the Mexico line in the desert town of Bedford Flats, where he realizes that his disgruntled dealers are in close pursuit. Seeking refuge with a neighborly 12-step counselor (Ken Lally) assures that Warren ends up a captive participant in the town’s bizarre annual hunting contest that pursues hapless humans for sport. Along with his druggie buddy Robbie (Connor Williams) and a couple of other derelicts, Warren’s given a head start across the sun-baked playa with three teams of hunters not far behind, all competing for the highest kill count.
The suggestion that society can rid itself of “undesirables” with elaborately staged public executions presents a certain repulsively reductionist logic that Warren’s persecutors seize upon with unrestrained enthusiasm. Understandably, he’s not as thrilled, particularly once he’s stranded in the wilderness without any booze and the hallucinations follow close on the shakes as withdrawal symptoms overwhelm him. Warren’s debilitated state conceals his considerable combat skills and well-honed survival instinct, however, leading to some viscerally rewarding plot reversals, all topped by the final scene as he makes his desperate last stand.
Wall (Gun Shy) instinctively grasps Warren’s outward desperation and inner craving for redemption. Never seeking pity or charity, he’s determined to wrestle down his demons on his own terms, even at the cost of his own life. At the same time, he’s not above exploiting some sly stratagems to get his fix or protect his flank. Much of the rest of the cast plays as delightfully depraved, with Lally launching a deliriously disoriented revenge subplot and Sturm staging a fiercely self-important turn as the town’s bloodthirsty sheriff.
Gibson and Dietsch proffer some quick-witted plotting that first has to shake off a protracted setup in the early going before shifting into high gear as the hunt approaches a climax, and then another and another. Some tricky location shooting in challenging terrain doesn’t seem to faze them, however, with the film’s nimble camerawork and ironically amusing angles offering both thrills and chuckles.
Production companies: Selective Collective, Waterstone Entertainment
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Martin Dingle Wall, Ken Lally, Gary Sturm, Connor Williams, Kenny Wormald
Directors-screenwriters: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson
Producers: Jeff Kalligheri, Bryson Pintard
Executive producers: Kami Asgar, Stephen Bowen, Joe Dietsch, Steven Garcia, Louie Gibson, Nick Guerra, Sean McCormack, Michael Tipps
Director of photography: Joe Dietsch
Production designer: Mark Alan Diaz
Editors: Joe Dietsch, Louie Gibson
Music: Rhyan D’Errico, Simon H. Jay