The 24-hour gas station in the middle of the night is one of the most unnerving places in the world. There’s rarely a good reason to be there. Either you just dodged the bullet of hitting E on your tank, or you’re desperately hoping the store has some needed item that can’t wait until the sun comes up. Whatever the reason, the gas station overnight always feels ominous. Artificial and empty, not even the bright lights shining like a beacon seem to mitigate the inherent creepiness of the location.
In Night of the Hunted, Alice (Camille Rowe) makes a pit stop at just such a lonely gas station on a desolate stretch of road. Upon finding the store completely empty, lacking even the cashier, she attempts to leave only to be stopped by a bullet through the window.
Wounded, but otherwise okay, Alice quickly realizes that a sniper is watching her every move and has no intention of letting her live. With no way of contacting the outside world, and with no protection other than the flimsy barricades of the store shelves, Alice must depend on her wits and perseverance to overcome her unseen attacker.
The movie starts at a terrific pace. There’s maybe a whole ten minutes of introduction getting in the way before the first shot is fired. And there’s something to be said about a movie that takes time to really establish the world and its occupants before setting the whole thing ablaze. There’s also something to be said for a movie that decides “forget all that nonsense” and throws us right into the meat-grinder by the time the title card fades away.
While Night of the Hunted may start at warp speed, that’s not to say it doesn’t give us proper characterization in those opening ten minutes. Representing a masterclass in efficient storytelling, the movie lays out everything we need to know about Alice and her life with only a few lines of dialogue and one well-placed phone call.
Once the bullets start flying, the bulk of the story development falls right onto the shoulders of Alice as she struggles in isolation to find a way out of her predicament. With only a voice on the other end of a radio to banter back and forth with, Camille Rowe does a fantastic job of carrying the movie. Alice is constantly moving and planning, and Rowe’s performance keeps the movie engaging and consistently moving forward.
Just as the story starts to drag on, a new character shows up to throw further complications into the mix. When Doug (J. John Bieler) wanders into the store he finds himself trapped in the same plight as Alice. However, rather than create a sense of safety in numbers, the new addition only serves to ratchet the tension up even higher. Can Doug be trusted, or is he connected in some way to the shooter?
Alice knows as much as the audience does, and the growing paranoia about Doug’s true motives goes a long way to make an otherwise simple plot even more intriguing.
The movie chugs along nicely, throwing a decent number of twists in our face, but eventually it does lose some steam. Just past the midway point, the frantic pace slows down to a near standstill. At that point, the bane of all Trapped-In-A-Place-Because-Of-A-Thing movies rears its head, and the story grows tedious.
While a movie can’t maintain a breakneck pace without becoming exhausting, it’s all too easy to switch gears too far in the opposite direction and lose all the momentum that was built. While Night of the Hunted never completely grinds to a halt, the tail-end of the story treads perilously close to wearing out its welcome before the final confrontation.
Where the movie really starts to wear thin is with regards to the sniper himself. The Sniper (Stasa Stanic) spouts varying motivations for his actions but contradicts himself so often, sometimes in the same line of dialogue, that it seems pointless to take anything he says into consideration at all. Night of the Hunted seems to be attempting to make a statement about the political climate in the US, but it’s so scatterbrained in the approach that it carries no real weight.
Unclear and contradictory motivations can often result in an intriguing antagonist. Great fun can be had dissecting the statements and actions to piece together the truth behind the character. In the case of The Sniper, it’s not intriguing. It’s shallow and meaningless. The movie would be better suited if it left the overt political jargon out of the dialogue and let the audience piece together the motivations (or lack-thereof) themselves.
When the movie drops its ham-fisted political analysis and instead focuses on the standoff between Alice and The Sniper, it’s much more successful. It’s tense, stressful, and not afraid to get its hands dirty.
Director Franck Khalfoun previously helmed the fantastic remake of Maniac, and anyone that saw that movie will be well-aware that he is not bashful in his portrayal of violence. While Night of the Hunted is not as excessively nasty as his prior work, it knows when to get gruesome. The focus is more on tension and survival rather than outright gory effects, but when Khalfoun decides the moment has come to splatter some body parts, he makes sure you remember it. This story is not one for the faint of heart.
The movie is not perfect by any means. It drags a bit in the later stages, and punches outside of its weight-class in the field of political commentary, but it does enough right that it manages to overcome its occasional shortcomings. It features solid performances, great tension, and builds a fantastic sense of dread & paranoia. As long as you can forgive its few stumbles, Night of the Hunted is definitely worth a watch.