Jordan Downey’s atmospheric The Head Hunter is a beautifully shot piece that does so much right with so little that you are left begging for more. A thriller that knows what its intentions are and executes them perfectly.
In the shadows of a looming castle on the outskirts of a kingdom, a quiet but fierce medieval warrior (Christopher Rygh) protects the realm from monsters. The gruesome collection of trophy heads on the wall of his cabin is missing only one – the monster that killed his daughter. He travels wild expanses on horseback, driven by a thirst for revenge. When his chance for vengeance arrives, it’s in a way far more horrifying than he ever imagined.
For such a minimalistic and straightforward story that basically just has one character throughout, you are absolutely riveted. Our character barely ever talks, yet you are captivated by his journey; this is a story that shouldn’t really be as effective as it is here. With each horn blow, his mission begins. Do we know for sure who gives him the task? No. It is given to the audience to fill in the blanks with such details. This is such a bold move from Jordan Downey and Kevin Stewart to trust the audience to answer their own questions into this world. We are given little hints to help weave our own version of this marvellously dark and grim world.
There are small moments that allows The Head Hunter to stand out. When our hunter is off looking for the beast in an all too brief moment, he passes the nearby castle. Music is playing, and apparent joy is being had inside. Yet, he continues on his journey and never ventures within. As he looks up to the castle, you wonder what he thinks as he has a look of conflict on his face. Does he hate these people for not being to help him and his daughter? Does he wish he was able to retire and live within those walls? These moments allow the audience to add their own details to the story created.
The story told here in The Head Hunter is clear that this is the perfect length, and we actually discover in the commentaries that it runs longer than intended thanks to some pick-ups. There will be people who lament the film’s length and want more, but that would purely because of how well Downey and his team have done here to make us care about Rygh’s character and this world he lives in. We want to see more and in truth, any good film should be leaving us satisfied in this way. From the moment we know why he is so vengeful to what he does to try and find the beast, to the claustrophobic nature of what happens in the final act, we are with this story all the way.
The shot choices in The Head Hunter are wondrous, with some terrific wide shots of Christopher Rygh wandering through the empty forests. These shots showcase how isolated he is from the rest of his community, whether by choice or otherwise. Due to holding on to these shots for just that second or two longer, we are made to think that something could be lurking just behind a tree or around the corner.
By giving us this doubt early on, by the time we make it to the more tense scenes, we are positive the beast is just around the corner. Simple work, but excellent work from the filmmakers to trick our eyes and our minds this way. This is equally so when we get close up with our hunter; the handheld shots are so tight and focused on him as he works that you would assume something is just out of shot. We also feel in these moments that we are right there beside him as he either begins to prepare for his hunt or is mending himself after said hunt.
While we never really get enough looks other than glimpses of our beasts that the hunter faces, we get the general idea of what he is facing, though obviously struck by budget restrictions. It would allow The Head Hunter to reach the upper echelons it deserves to get to. Regardless, however, what we do get looks fantastic and while not a full-scale horror, the thriller aspect is alive and well here. We are left with a film that is easy to love, thanks to everyone putting in one heck of a shift.
If you go into this without expecting what you see in the trailer, you may be disappointed. This is a slow, intimate film full of atmosphere, but not as much action as you would expect. For this, your expectations need to be set at a suitable level. The feeling that audiences expected some big bombastic monster film and were given an excellent character study on revenge. This film has just the right amount and no more gore and brutality needed to make it succeed. It most likely wouldn’t work nearly as well if you threw money at it to make it “scarier”. This is low budget filmmaking at its very best—Bravo to all involved.
• How We Made Head Hunter – Commentary with director Jordan Downey and producers Kevin Stewart and Ricky Fosheim
• Why We Made Head Hunter – Commentary with writer-director Jordan Downey and writer Kevin Stewart
• Making of featurette
With only a few special features, we are given two excellent commentaries that delve into the technical side of how the film was made and into the story of parts of the story. This interesting way to break up the story works for the majority of the time as we are given snippets of information such as how they purchased and then dyed and dirtied a fur coat that they bought from TJ Maxx. These small details allow the audience to see how low budget the feature is and is a great insight.
We also learn that Christopher Rygh is a drone enthusiast, and his drone footage of the woodland in Norway was used when Downey and co noticed the videos on his Instagram feed. Thus giving him an aerial footage credit. While both commentaries are great, there are moments in which certain subjects are mentioned in both commentaries, which can be a tad derivative.
We are then given a short and sweet making promo that is merely clips of the film with some talking heads. There isn’t too much information here, and they never delve too much into the film, which is a shame as this becomes more of a fluff piece to the film more than anything else.
The Head Hunter is available to buy now on Blu-ray from 101 Films here.
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