The Victim (2011)

First published by Little White Lies

A key image of Michael Biehn’s directorial debut The Victim shows a four-wheel-drive winding its way through the mountain roads of backwoods Arizona. It is an image that promises both the thrills of genre (the vehicle’s destination is no less than a proverbial ‘cabin in the woods’) and a lot of twists and turns along the way.

It is is a suspicion that has already been confirmed by the title sequence, a juddery montage of newspaper clippings, missing persons files and photos that openly mimics the beginning of Se7en (right down to the accompanying industrial soundtrack); by the familiar subtitle “based on a true story”, with the word “not” materialising in front of it in self-conscious breach of the po-faced spell; and by an opening scene in which stripper Mary (Danielle Harris) is first shown unenthusiastically allowing herself to be taken from behind over a woodland rock, and then having her neck snapped by her dissatisfied suitor Harrison (Ryan Honey). As Mary’s friend (and fellow-stripper) Annie (Jennifer Blanc) flees the murderous Harrison and his reluctant accomplice Cooger (Dennny Kirkwood), and seeks refuges in the cabin of retiring loner Kyle (Biehn), all five characters will have their loyalty and trust challenged as lies compound and civility clashes with bestiality in the middle of nowhere.

All this tells us, loud and clear, that we are in a world of pure, tawdry entertainment that is detached from any kind of (non-cinematic) reality. Crooked cops, serial killings, moral chaos – The Victim has all the right ingredients in place to be the next Surveillance, but unfortunately Biehn has neither the directing nor writing skills of Jennifer Lynch, let alone of Quentin Tarantino (whose Pulp Fiction is also expressly referenced), and so material that might have really got cooking is allowed merely to sputter and die out. Even that sequence, near the film’s beginning, of Kyle’s  SUV traversing the endless hinterlands, plays out at such an aimless pace that, for all its inherent mobility, it brings the narrative to a shuddering halt – and this is long before we have seen the same plodding journey made for the fourth or fifth time in the film. By the film’s second half, despite the supposed nocturnal setting and the precarious quality of the roads, no-one seems to drive with their headlights on – and when Annie and Kyle are left in a car (with the keys in the ignition) by their clearly ill-intentioned captors, they do not think just to drive off. Of course these are merely quibbling details in a film that makes no real claims on verisimilitude, but with so many longueurs, meandering repetitions and futile flashbacks, you will easily find yourself drifting, no longer seeing the trees for all the wood – and wooden acting.

The biggest draw here is Biehn himself, yesterdecade’s star of James Cameron blockbusters The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss – and while there is no doubt that The Victim is something of a vanity project, there is also a strange, nostalgia-tinged melancholy to be found in the scene where young, buxom Annie (apparently no longer traumatised by her bff’s very recent death) beds Biehn’s Kyle every which way in a softcore-graphic manner harking straight back to Biehn’s Eighties heyday (complete with rocking score). “You look good for 54”, Annie asserts post-coitally, “and you fuck good for 54.” Yet if Biehn is determined to show us he has still got it, perhaps he might do better than trying to keep his film’s many shortcomings afloat under the ‘grindhouse’ flag of convenience. This is a relatively low-budget, independent film whose cast and crew clearly had a lot of fun – but that never quite translates into fun for the viewer. Still, even Biehn’s mentor Cameron started his directing career on Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, so the only way for Biehn is up.

© Anton Bitel