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Pack (La meute), The
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by Jay Seaver

"The French can also do backwoods horror, which is both good and bad."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Torture porn is a horror fad whose moment has more or less passed, right? Sure, the "Saw" movies still come out like clockwork, but that's more a franchise of its own than an example of a trend now. I ask because while the new French thriller "La Meute" ("The Pack") doesn't fall entirely under that category, it does have long stretches where it substitutes mere suffering for suspense.

At first, it looks like that may come at the expense of a group of bikers that annoy Charlotte (Émilie Dequenne) on her cross-country drive. Though she thinks she loses them, they show back up when she and Max (Benjamin Biolay) stop at a roadside diner. The diner's owner, "La Spack" (Yolande Moreau), and the local sheriff, Chinaski (Philippe Nahon), run them off, but soon Max apparently goes to the bathroom and doesn't return. Now, it's not like Charlotte is particularly attached to him, but she's curious - though what she finds when coming back the next night will make her wish she'd just kept driving.

Give writer/director Franck Richard credit - he zeroes in on his mood and only very briefly does he ever waver. The back roads he sets the story on are grimy and dusty, with worn-down cars stopping at worn-down diners, and there's a scent of hostility coming from nearly every member of the cast, with the rest initially looking kind of laughable. It's a place where a person can just disappear. Cinematographer Laurent Bares fills the screen with browns during the day and deep, inky blacks that can swallow a man whole at night.

The cast is also impressive. Dequenne, recently seen in The Girl on the Train, makes Charlotte tough enough that even though we never hear anything about her past in the film, we get the idea she is walking away in disgust rather than running in fear. Benjamin Biolay is a pleasant enough male lead; even though his characterization takes a turn during the film, he's able to sell it like it's no big thing. But it's hard to watch the film and remember anything more vividly than Yolande Moreau's "La Spack". We've seen this sort of hulking backwoods woman in plenty of American horror movies, and while Moreau makes her every bit as monstrous as her American counterparts, she never makes La Spack into a broad, cackling stereotype; she makes this person scary because this sort of thing is her everyday life.

Richard gives us an impressive if uneven last act, too, a siege in which Charlotte and unlikely allies must hold off La Spack's vicious children that crackles with tension. If it had been the bulk of the movie, this might have been one of my favorite horror films in recent years, but it unfortunately comes after what probably seems like a lot more grisly torment than is actually present. It seems like we just sit and watch people bleed forever at times, and there's a fine line between establishing just how bad a villain is and just repulsing the audience until they shut the movie out, and La Meute all too often tends toward the latter.

If I were to watch the movie again with a stopwatch I'm pretty sure that I'd find that the things I liked far outweighed the ones I didn't; Richard has certainly shown some raw talent in his debut. But horror movies are more about the visceral reaction than the analysis, and with "La Meute", "who wants to see this" sadly made an equal impression with "cannot look away".

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originally posted: 07/24/10 02:34:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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11/23/10 Lisa Kloowte 5 stars
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