Hillwalkers’ prologue is a gruesome checklist of what to expect from Tom Cosgrove’s micro-budget thriller. A prelude to bogland terror, a desolate landscape, human prey outgunned and ill-prepared for the treacherous surroundings, and a sinister figure donning a cheap Halloween mask, moving through the frame like a ghostly, shoe-string version of the Predator. The victim runs but can’t hide from this master hunter of the Most Dangerous Game.
Cosgrove is genre-aware enough to front load his film with a sequence approximating a sizzle reel for the talent behind the camera. It’s not often that a film has a trailer baked into its running time but the technique proves effective in setting expectations and tension levels for what’s to come.
A shotgun blast delivered right to camera takes us from the conclusion of this gory episode to the beginning of another.
A Peugeot drives into frame, parking at the end of a road and, judging by the blasted-out scenery, it might as well be at the end of the world. A nearby road sign reads “GLENKILL”, the same double-barrelled subtlety from the prelude applied once again.
The life-on-the-line chase of the prologue may be the stuff of grisly genre fiction but the company-mandated team-building hike is a nightmare scenario that’s all too real for many.
The car’s passengers are familiar office types as well. Miriam and Ray (Aoife Honohan and Eoin O’Sullivan) are married team leaders, Susan (Áine Flanagan) is a junior member of the team who has been tasked with documenting the hike and Lisa (Elise Brennan) has some familiarity with the area and advises on the best route. Also along for the ride is Ben (Shane Connellan), who makes his displeasure with the day’s activity known from moment one, even if his complaints fall on deaf ears.
Running time and budget necessitate that Hillwalkers makes the most of the scenery and scripting. The momentum in the early part of the film comes from gradually revealing more of each character. We move from wide shots of the landscape, showing the walkers as little blots of colour on desolate and harsh terrain. “Like the surface of the moon,” quips one of the party.
These grander, sweeping scenery shots are broken up by snippets of conversations between the workmates. Jumping from one set of characters to another we learn a little more about everybody in the group. Generally, these little morsels of insight go some way to making each of the characters more sympathetic. Their lives are workaday and relatable: relationships, children, illness and so on.
As is the case for much of the film, Ben is the exception here, Connellan plays him as a wisecracker, whiny and reluctant but with an inflated sense of self. In another film, Ben pointing out the similarities between the foggy bogland and the opening of An American Werewolf in London would be treated as cool or funny, in Hillwalkers he is always pitched as annoying, veering into creepy in one exchange with Susan. The office-politics aspect of the script is well-observed, the main characters are broad but believable, Tom Cosgrove’s strong dialogue helps in making them feel more human and less Facebook personality quiz.
Inevitably, the group gets into trouble in the foggy wilderness. Ray gets stuck with a tree branch and is fading fast. Lisa begins the long trek back to the car to phone for help while the others wait by the entrance to a private estate. Miriam makes an executive decision to head into the farmland and look for help despite the presence of some aggressively worded signage. She is bullish in her decision to ignore the warnings and protests of her coworkers. “I broker multi-million-euro deals for a living, I can persuade someone to help us.”
In the woods the group are framed through trees, and unease gives way to disgust and fear when they uncover an animal carcass that’s been butchered in a way that suggests pleasure rather than necessity. Soon after, they happen upon the residents of the farm, who offer to help out after an exchange that’s equal parts intense and awkward.
The farmers, brothers Tadhg (Michael Cloke) and Neil (Gerry O’Brien), and nephew Steevy (Mark Agar) are, in their own words, “primitive”. The film draws a formal distinction between the parties. The farmers are shot from lower angles, the camera often holding on expressions a beat or two longer than is comfortable so the audience can see a smile turn sinister at the last possible second. After a time, the office workers are filmed mostly in reverse shots, their reactions to this strange and potentially dangerous family taking up much of the middle act of the film.
Everything that Neil says is like a riddle with no answer. O’Brien delivers his lines in the manner of a comedian setting up a joke only to withhold the punchline from the audience. It is funny that the city folks don’t see that they’re the butt of the joke until it’s far too late.
Agar’s Steevy is a twitchy, leery psycho and like his uncle Neil, a master of doublespeak. These characters are not charming but they win us over because they chew the scenery to sawdust. Now and then the feeling is that the hillwalkers and the farmers are from two different films. This creates a profound unease in the film, the dissonance acting as an extension of the Us vs. Them conflict that emerges.
The terse back and forth between the farming family and their newly snared prisoners is the best Hillwalkers has to offer. There are some exciting scenes later on when the hunters become the hunted. The backwoods bonded the farmers in savagery whereas all those kayaking excursions, company picnics and late-night brainstorming sessions has made the hillwalkers a family unit that works together. What bands the city folks together tears the country apart.
Cosgrove ends Hillwalkers with a shot that does more to sell me on the idea of a future team-building exercise than any pep talk from your boss’s boss’s boss.
Hillwalkers premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh, and a wider release is forthcoming.