Night Hunter (aka Nomis) first published by Sight & Sound, October 2019
Review: A young woman, dressed in her underwear, runs through the snowy woods at night. Cornered by her pursuer, she prefers to fall to her death than be recaptured. Her state of relative undress and her willingness to die are signifiers, in this opening sequence from Night Hunter (aka Nomis), of unspeakable antecedents to what we are seeing. Once Lieutenant Marshall (Henry Cavill) is on the case, working with the Cyber Squad of Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), it becomes clear that Alice is just one of many girls who have gone missing. Investigating, Marshall and Rachel chance upon former judge turned vigilante Cooper (Ben Kingsley), who with help from his foul-mouthed young ward Lara (Eliana Jones), sets honeytraps for online groomers whom he then castrates. Cooper helps the police close in on Simon Stulls (Brendan Fletcher) in an isolated mansion’s basement dungeon where a girl, Julie (Sara Thompson), is still being held captive along with Lara. Yet as Rachel interviews the withdrawn, mentally impaired Simon in custody, she is unsure whether he is the perpetrator, or just another victim.
The feature debut of writer/director David Raymond, this twisty thriller, with its grimly horrific crimes and its slippery captive consultant, owes an obvious debt to the Hannibal Lecter novels of Thomas Harris, as well as to their various film and television adaptations (most notably Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, 1991). Much as Lecter was able to ‘get into the head’ of those investigating him, all involved in the Night Hunter case are negatively affected. For the film pays due attention to the toll of these abhorrent crimes not just on the (surviving) victims and their families, but also on the disrupted domestic lives of Marshall – separated from his wife and daughter – and of the tormented Cooper, who like Marshall is obsessed with his work and lives in a house without furniture. This is indeed a story of broken homes, including Simon’s own, which complicates our view of a man caught red-handed and identified by Julie as her ‘evil’ captor, yet seemingly incapable of masterminding such elaborate actions alone and himself very much a product of an extremely troubled family history. Rushed to get results by Commissioner Harper (Stanley Tucci), Rachel regrets that she does not have more time to explore the sweet-seeming Simon’s fractured mental state – but soon Cooper, Marshall and Rachel will come face to face with Simon’s dark half, within and without.
The film too comes with a certain schizophrenia. For it sympathises with its devils at the same time as it glorifies in police brutality (while interrogating both), and treads the thin ice between the law, vigilantism and the most abominable brand of criminality. Night Hunter seems, at least initially, to be dealing in cyber crimes, but then traces its rapey depravities back to a pre-internet age. It is a bleak film, its nocturnal wintry surroundings (Manitoba doubling for Minnesota) the perfect stage for its characters’ desperate attempts to claw their way back out of the darkness to the warmth and light.
Synopsis: Rural Minnesota, the present. Separated from his wife Angie and daughter Faye because of his obsessiveness about work, police detective Marshall, helped by cyber squad leader Rachel, pursues an abductor, rapist and killer of young women. Meanwhile young Lara helps widowed ex-judge Cooper set honeytraps for online groomers. When Lara goes missing, Cooper leads Marshall to the home of Simon Stulls, where Lara and Julie are being held captive. Julie identifies Simon as her captor, but in custody he shows evidence of multiple personalities, and seems incapable of carrying out the crimes alone. Meanwhile someone is killing investigating police with car bombs and gas attacks. A policeman is blackmailed into releasing Simon when his own baby girl is abducted. Marshall and Rachel discover that Simon’s mother had him after she was raped by David, a wealthy academic who had then paid her off to halt any court action. The mother subsequently hanged herself. In David’s college rooms, Marshall finds David stabbed by a disturbed Simon. While Simon is in custody, Lara goes missing again. As Rachel transports Simon to court, Cooper rams the vehicle off the road, desperate to learn of Lara’s whereabouts. Simon’s twin brother appears, kills Cooper, rescues Simon and takes Rachel. Simon and his controlling brother plan to set fire to Rachel and Lara and let them fall burning through a lake’s thin ice, but Marshall tracks them to the lake, and after a tense standoff, the twins fall into the icy water.