Even allowing for the minimalism of its formula, the German “hunted in the woods” thriller “Prey” offers slim pickings for those who enjoy watching and reasoning one’s way out of the pre-ordained predicament it puts its victims and the viewer in.
The set-up is so familiar your average 12 year-old could script it. Five friends set off on a kayaking/camping hike into the mid-European forest. Somebody starts shooting at them. They don’t know who, and even after they do, they have no idea “why.”
As they’re picked off and avenues for escape, “plans” to get out of this come to nothing, who will show himself capable of learning, scheming and figuring out how to fight back before they’re all dead?
Such thrillers, even the most unsurvivably supernatural among them, have the hunted and the viewer experience a learning curve. That’s who wins these Darwinian Hunter Games, those who adapt.
But there’s no learning here, no scheming. The most important figure to go into this kind of clueless and come out the same way is writer-director Thomas Sieben. If you ever wondered how boring and frustrating it might be to watch the young, athletic and helpless stagger to their deaths, with little agency in their fate, Sieben’s made a movie for you.
No. That’s not giving away the ending. But when Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David vowed they’d make an American sitcom whose characters lived by a “NO LEARNING” ethos, they had no idea they’d inspire some German with a Netflix deal to try it in a thriller.
Sieben (“Kidnapping Stella”) serves up a bachelor party of five, guys with little woodlore among them, riding inflatable kayaks, hiking and perhaps camping in a national park in early winter.
Roman (David Kross) is about to get married. Albert (Hanno Koffler) is the start-up entrepreneur some of them work for. Vincent (Yung Ngo) is the one most out of his depth, the one given to throwing up under stress and whimpering and crying when things get real.
You would be, too, if you were the first one shot. They hear what they assume to be hunters’ rifle fire, here and there. But it’s only when they try to get in their SUV and leave that the “accident” that winged Vincent stops looking like a mistake. They’re being hunted.
They flee into the forest without their gear, with no cell signal and little to fight back with save for a single knife and their wits.
In Sieben’s screenwriterly mind, that’s game over. These guys have “issues.” Little is done to develop the group dynamic, just this guy needing a job, that one needing investors, Vincent just wanting it all to end and Roman wishing he was with his fiance.
There’s talk of “every man for himself,” which sounds even uglier in German. The shots keep coming, even as they halfheartedly attempt to reason their way out of this jam, or plead from afar with the motiveless, murderous shooter.
“Why are you DOING this?”
Flashbacks show the “tests” Roman has faced in the relationship he’s about to consummate with marriage. Yawn.
When your Around the World with Netflix film puts more effort into explaining “motivations” than it does on five educated, healthy men incapable of teaming up, brainstorming or spitballing until they find an escape or counter-attack that works, that “explanation” had better justify all this.
It does not.
Perhaps our writer-director was making satiric fun of male bonding, the myth of primal male woodland prowess and the like. Probably not, and seriously, that’s all I’ve got on “Prey.” Alas, Sieben has to admit the same.
Rating: TV-MA, violence
Cast: David Kross, Hanno Koffler, Robert Finster, Yung Ngo, Klaus Steinbacher and Nellie Thalbach
Credits: Scripted and directed by Thomas Sieben. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:27