In broad terms, there are two kinds of thrillers: the ones that rely more on actions beats, explosions and general mayhem, and those that prefer to exploit atmosphere and a sense of place in order to generate tension. Zack Wilcox’s “Hunting Lands” belongs to the latter. Shot in the snow-covered landscapes of Michigan and light on dialog or traditional sequences of “excitement”, the film is a commendable exercise of suspense, a minimalistic motion picture that could end up boring some members of the audience, while enthralling the rest.
Marshall Cook plays Frank Olsen, a reclusive veteran who’s trying to commence a new life in the Michigan wilderness, escaping from technology and contemporary society. Unfortunately, despite the fact that he’s doing his best to remain unlinked from the modern world, he gets involved in a tricky situation: he discovers a beaten woman called Maggie (Keyna Reyndolds) pretty much in his new backyard. Realising someone left her for dead, Frank decides to find out who did this and why, and when he finally does, he invites Lance (Joe Raffa) to hunt on his land. Whatever happens between the two of them will decide the fates of both Frank and Maggie.
“Hunting Lands” is made for a very specific audience: those who don’t mind a slow-burner, the kind of thriller that takes its sweet time to develop its plot and characters. The film’s first few minutes are almost devoid of dialogue, masterfully showing the audience everything they need to know about Frank as a protagonist: his hobby (hunting), his attention to detail and his stoicism. They also serve to showcase the landscapes of Michigan; “Hunting Lands” cinematography is quite beautiful, and it helps to sell a sense of cold and solitude, conveying the fact that Frank definitely doesn’t want to be found.
The rest of the movie, despite being more plot-centric, has the same glacial pace and palpable atmosphere. Wilcox does a good job at developing the central mystery —who tried to kill Maggie and why?— and keeping the audience guessing. The fact that Cook plays Frank as a very stiff and almost emotionless man certainly helps; one assumes he’s innocent because he’s the main character and seems genuinely surprised by the appearance of Maggie near his doorstep, but the film portrays him in a sufficiently indecisive manner, so as to keep him as the potential culprit in the audiences’ mind.
In fact, Frank is quite the fascinating protagonist, a very silent and solitary man who, despite his desire for isolation and peace, is willing to risk his newfound anonymity in order to seek the truth. He is portrayed with nuance and realism by Cook, who fully transforms into the character from the first moment he appears onscreen; we learn a lot about Frank both through his actions and through dialogue spoken by secondary characters, meaning he doesn’t have to say a lot in order to become a fully-fledged individual.
Joe Raffa is mysterious enough as Lance, and although Keyna Reynolds doesn’t have much to do in comparison to her male counterparts, she manages to give a little heart and emotion to a potentially thankless role. It’s because of her work that we care about what happens to her, and about the success —or failure— of Frank’s quest.
Visually, “Hunting Lands” is quite spectacular. Michigan’s frozen planes and snowy forests have never looked better, and thankfully, the scenery is not gratuitously included. On the contrary: it serves to represent Frank’s current state. He is a cold and solitary man, much like the place he now lives in, and he’s trying to be free. On the other hand, we’ve got Lance, whose habitat, so to speak, is the city, which is represented as a dirty, slimy and depressing kind of place. This contrast, this battle between nature and modern society, between what’s clean and lonely, and what’s grimy and overpopulated, perfectly represents both protagonist and antagonist, and the main themes of the picture’s admittedly minimalistic narrative.
Additionally, Garron Chang’s soundtrack complements the actions very well which, in this kind of film, is quite necessary, since many a scene is lacking in dialogue and ends up depending on audio, either sound effects or music. Predictably, the score is as minimalistic as the script and Willcox’s directing style, but it serves the movie well; it’s disturbing when it has to be, pretty intense during a couple of moments —especially during the third act— and unobtrusive when Willcox wants his spectators to concentrate on the actions of his characters. The picture’s overall sound design is effective; it manages to immerse the viewer in this sometimes silent, but frequently violent world.
I wouldn’t recommend “Hunting Lands” to those who tend to grow impatient while watching deliberately paced movies. Nevertheless, it’s worth mentioning that it all pays off in the third act, especially for those who were looking for something more exciting. The central mystery is resolved in a very plausible manner —although I’m sure some viewers might accuse the film of promoting vigilantism—, and the last few minutes pack quite a punch; the conclusion of “Hunting Lands” is both suspenseful and emotionally satisfying, a game of stalker and victim that might not involve its participants in the way many a member of the audience might suspect. Most of “Hunting Lands” running time consists of a moody buildup to this tense finale.
Part revenge picture, part atmospheric thriller, and part character study, “Hunting Lands” is quite the surprise. Yes, its deliberate pace might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and yes, its minimalistic —yet effectively structured— storyline might be a little too simplistic for some, but for those who appreciate slow-burning thrillers, visually spectacular mysteries, or intriguingly metaphoric stories, “Hunting Lands” is a consistently engaging new option. Do try to see it on the big screen, though (I couldn’t, unfortunately); finding such a visually striking indie is not an easy feat, and such an effort —from director Zack Willcox, cinematographer Edwin Pendleton Stevens, and their whole team— should be enthusiastically rewarded.