The Head Hunter (aka The Head) (2018)

Shot largely in Portugal, but with Norway and California’s Mammoth Lakes providing a few of its stranger landscapes, The Head Hunter (aka The Head) unfolds in a mythic time and place where men clash with trolls and other imaginary aggressors. On the King’s orders (delivered as messages on arrows), a hulking, bearded, Viking-like warrior (the extraordinary Christopher Rygh) collects the heads of various creatures that he has vanquished, healing his horrific wounds with a magical restorative poultice of his own making. Living alone in a cottage whose interior wall is festooned with grotesque trophies, this warrior never stops toiling at the behest of his remote commander, but his one individual desire is to find and slay the thing that took the life of his young daughter (Cora Kaufman).

With its grubby, lived-in production design, its astonishing, desaturated locations and its  perfectly sustained intensity of mood, Jordan Downey’s film is like Trollhunter (2010) mixed with Valhalla Rising (2009). It is also ruled by uncanny ellipses: right from the opening sequence, in which the warrior moves off-screen with his drawn sword and, after the sound of a groaning, stabbing struggle is heard, returns with blood on his blade and hands, his battles are not actually shown, much as his daughter’s death occurs between one scene and another. All these narrative gaps can be filled with different readings of a more psychological nature, where the demons that he keeps fighting are metaphors for a struggle as much internal as external. For perhaps, as he merely patches up his deep-seated traumas and serially kills to assuage a sense of red-handed guilt over his daughter’s mysterious death, the warrior is the film’s only true monster, carrying an unhinged, bestial head upon his scarred shoulders – as though this were a proto-psychokiller flick, told from the murderer’s own deranged perspective and unravelling in the Dark Ages.

All this makes a simple-seeming, almost one-handed, nearly dialogue-free film resonate deeply with a complicated and disturbing subtext. Atmospheric as all hell, too.

© Anton Bitel