Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: Prey

Directed by Antoine Blossier
Starring: Grégoire Colin, Bérénice Bejo, François Levantal, Fred Ulysse, Joseph Malerba
Grade: C

As a pocket-size 75-minute feature, Antoine Blossier’s “Prey,” a film with a roaming sense of conviction towards its sequences of horror, is actually fairly compact. Blossier pulls no punches in his debut directorial outing, offering a unique spin on age-old themes. One of the many customs of horror cinema lies in familial drama - going all the way back to Jamie Lee Curtis’ maniacal brother trying to kill her in “Halloween,” and up to the infidelity and love triangle in 2004’s terrific “The Descent”; people beset on by predators are, to some degree, already unsettled in their personal lives.

The family dynamic in “Prey” reinforces this narrative staple of convoluted backstory, pitting Grégoire Colin (formerly of “Beau Travail”) as Nathan, a meek accountant up against the tyranny of his prosperous in-laws. Married to Claire (Bejo), he is growing increasingly frustrated with her obligations towards the family’s lucrative pesticide business, and particularly the dependence placed upon her by domineering father/employer Nicolas (Levanthal). Nathan wants nothing more than to have a child and settle down, while Claire remains wary of adding distance between her and the family.

A gathering at their country mansion gets off to a shaky start, as rampaging deer from a surrounding forest threaten the life of Claire’s father. The male members of the household (including younger son David) venture into it to surmise why the animals are behaving erratically, and with the intent to extinguish any potential threats that they encounter. The expedition unsurprisingly does not run smoothly, and as tempers flare between the gun-wielding alphas, they discover that the primary danger is not each other but the volatile, predatory wildlife lurking in the undergrowth.

“Prey” is being heavily promoted as a special effects coup of sorts, provided by a Hollywood team somewhat renowned for their visual flair. This doesn’t translate as a particularly valuable commodity on-screen: in terms of production values, “Prey” appears to have much more in common with minimal-budget, visceral horror films (which is not at all an insult), and rather than manipulate through shock-tactic editing, endeavours to instil tension through character development and internal politics. A canny use of handheld camera has been the benchmark since 1999’s unsteady “Blair Witch” adventure, and this Indie woodland descendant doesn’t deviate much from that train of thought.

As these men venture deeper into the forest, the question begs: Are they targets because they’re ungrateful with their own lives; or just too morally-tarnished as people? It might be that we simply can’t bear for a family with two-point-four children to perish, but biochemical magnates and ageing tycoons are within the realm of acceptable ‘victims’. The further “Prey” goes it becomes a lot looser in its desire to expose the allegorical goals of the narrative, eventually revealing its lack of sophistication through utilising platitudinous ideas about society’s preoccupation with land and money, and its ruthless need to preserve it. Moreover, the introduction of Erin Brockovich-style injustice into its explanation of events -- as an emotional device designed to provoke ecological outrage and further lessen the appeal of these men -- is a shade disappointing.

The exhilarating appeal of “Prey” lies in its grounded depiction of aggression as a product of legitimate animalistic instinct, and its thematic consideration of what constitutes a predator. Unconcerned with florid displays of violence, Blossier charts the primal regression of his desperate cast (not unlike Marshall in “The Descent” incidentally) and in the heart of this quest for survival unearths a rousing, unexpected reality within the frenzy. This reality reaches its peak when the behaviour of one of the characters severely compromises our view of them, but is executed with a daring dose of finality and allays with the primitive descension of a no-holds-barred war.

With more time afforded in exploring the interworking of the family (the action element of the film begins less than ten minutes in) there would be much more of a symbiotic value to some of the relationships in the film. As it is, we don’t sense enough of the characters’ deepseated traits and attitudes to become immersed in the domestic strife. Nathan’s relationship with Claire, for instance, is founded upon a solitary conversation between the two, and it isn’t fleshed out much more beyond that; while Nicolas remains a corporate antagonist used to punctuate the film’s social commentary. “Prey” asks questions about what standard of behaviour – if any – we should expect from people essentially out for themselves, and whether we should be happy with its ropey, cynical conclusions on human nature. In that regard, one thing is surely for certain: the film has a pretty cutthroat advocacy of reprehensibility and karma.

“Prey” squanders opportunities to flaunt its grittier aspects, neither fully content to explore the motivations of either of the two female characters, or exploit the situational drama of the opening act to make its issues worthwhile. It’s undeniably impacting as a primitive horror, but what is atoned for by a fascinating shift in tone has already primarily been undone by overt, weary nods to allegory and is finally hampered by a worrying late preoccupation with rectitude. The main moral of this story is surprisingly not to stay out of the forest.

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