THE HORSEMAN Review. [An Absolutely Crushing Revenge Thriller]

Posted by Peter Hall - October 22nd 2009 @ 7:00 am

Written and Directed by Steven Kastrissios, 2008

The revenge thriller is a tough nut to crack.  The key to success is diving brain first into a unique angle on a time-tested formula.  If you’re Pierre Morel with TAKEN you throw Liam Neeson on a plane to Paris and have him throat chop every scumbag that gets in the way between his ex-CIA skill set and his kidnapped daughter.  If you’re first time Australian writer/director Steven Kastrissios with THE HORSEMAN, you send an average father with nothing to lose on the most intense, brutal, nerve-wracking, painful journey towards catharsis I’ve ever seen.  Yes, I broke out the E-word.

Kastrissios doesn”t have money for an A-list Hollywood veteran, nor the backing for city-wide chaos, car stunts, or complex gun fights on yachts.  So he wrote a script that starts off with Christian, a father who receives a letter and a video tape shortly after the death of his estranged daughter.  The tape is of a gang-bang porn the strung-out daughter filmed while high on heroin the day she died.  The cops have already told Christian that they found DNA from four different men inside her, but only three men are seen in the tape.  It’s the last blow the already broken father can take, so he sets out to find out who made the tape and who the unseen fourth man is.

What follows is a white knuckle thriller that goes into deep, dark recesses that prey on the Mr. Hyde inside anyone who has truly loved another human being.  I may have fears of the unknown, fears of tall, lanky grey men from beyond the stars staring at me while I sleep, but what happens in THE HORSEMAN is my absolute worst nightmare.  I’m not yet a father, but if what happened to Christian’s daughter were to happen to my wife, I would track down and every single motherfucker who had even the slightest involvement and stick a knife in their throat.  Just thinking about that scenario makes my blood boil, but to see that hypothetical captured so well on the screen, and to see how wrong needs for revenge can quickly go, shakes me to my core more than any horror movie I’ve seen this year.

Granted it would be a stretch to say that THE HORSEMAN follows the typical definition of a horror movie, it most certainly doesn’t, but it has a raw honesty in each step it takes towards complete loss of control that is more terrifying than all the demonic possessions, resurrected machete wielders, and gypsy curses you’ll find in regular horror.  The violence in it is savage and unforgiving, causing me on multiple occasions to physically flinch at the material on screen.  Making matters worse is when Christian picks up a hitchhiking gal who reminds him of us daughter.  His relationship with her is such a great source of empathy that when things fall farther apart, it’s like throwing a skinless man on a salt flat.

And that’s even more impressive when you consider that THE HORSEMAN opens with Christian’s life already shattered.  He’s completed his character arc, he has reached his end self and learned that all he cares about is bleeding out every sleazy pervert and drug addict that took advantage of his daughter, and then probably going to jail for his actions.  That might be a problem for those who prefer a character develop over the course of a film, but this is one rare instance in which a character requires no development.  Sure, Kastrissios script progressively fills in a few blanks as it unfolds, but for the most part Christian is the same single-purpose, hellbound heart throughout.

Which is fine because Peter Marshall does such a damned good job selling every bone crunching blow from a pipe, whether he’s giving or receiving, that his performance exceeds the need for an overt moral journey.  He is a man committed and you can see his sundered soul in every wince, snarl, and defeated attempt at a smile.  He perfectly reflects the turmoil all of us feel when we think about what he sets out to do, whether we could even take the first steps or dive in knife first like Christian does, and whether or not it’s even justified.  How easy it is to get lost in his character’s mindset, for someone like me, is the most chilling aspect of the film.  Beyond the score that sounds like its filled with mini-nuclear bombs of bass, beyond the always-appropriate camera work, beyond the simple-yet-complicated script, it’s one’s ability to see themselves not just in Christian’s shoes, but doing what Christian does that makes THE HORSEMAN am outstanding accomplishment.

Kastrissios is definitely dealing with difficult material that isn’t suited for everyone, but if you’re up for having your ass kicked, THE HORSEMAN is an unforgettable film.

THE HORSEMAN will be in theaters in the UK on October 30th, 2009.  If you have a chance to see it, take it.

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  1. Rob
    October 23rd, 2009 | 1:26 am | #1

    Good job Peter. And I can see what makes this flick more affecting and personal over revenge films like Taken or Last House on the Left… unlike those and others of the genre, The Horseman has no extraneous plot or set pieces to get in the way of the pure rage and emotion.

    Also, and I think this is my biggest problem with the movie (aside from the lack of character development), I take issue with the treatment of the hitchhiker who reminds him of his daughter. I feel as if it negates everything he’s fighting for and actually accomplishes. Yes it makes the movie darker and less compromising, but it also makes it less engaging and fulfilling.

  2. December 10th, 2009 | 10:24 am | #2

    Thanks Peter, really well-written review.

    I’m glad I read this because everything I have previously seen about the movie made me to believe it was something else. I plan on checking it out upon DVD release.

  3. Mark Vanselow
    December 28th, 2009 | 12:16 am | #3

    You can psychoanalyse the supposed motivations of the main character all you like for THE HORSEMAN. I’ve said it before and I shall proclaim it again: this film is utter crap. Such hype for a low grade torture fest that hasn’t even received commercial release in Australia. You’d be forgiven for thinking someone had made the second coming of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

    THE HORSEMAN looks like a student film dedicated to showing what fun it can be to torture your enemies with whatever garden implements you have at your disposal. Hey, don’t get me wrong: I actually own a copy of DEATH WISH V, and I enjoy it, probably for what many people would say the wrong reasons. However, I don’t believe said film was intended to be taken as a piece of high art or a serious statement. Exploding remote control soccer ball: there’s something I didn’t get for Christmas!

    On the other hand, online self-appointed experts (oh, the irony!) have been quick to anoint THE HORSEMAN as some slice of cinematic brilliance. Ostensibly, Steve Kastrissios sold his house to finance this film. I guarantee you that house is cursed.

    Okay, so the main character’s daughter was involved with some rather sordid types…but did they really take advantage of her? It seems like another instance of the parent doing a lousy job of raising a child, then when the daughter overdoses on heroin as she engages in a wild sexual orgy, it someone else’s fault, because the girl had no will of her own (I point out the girl in question was aged at least eighteen years and certainly knew right from wrong).

    Obviously, the film tapped into the most primal bellicose feelings of the reviewer: audience manipulation at its most shameful. However, a thinking audience member (what a novelty!) would know sometimes young women gets themselves involved in hedonistic lifestyles, damn anyone else, because 18 year old girls know everything, life is one big drug-fulled binge!

    The problem with this film is not so much its gross depiction of vigilatism, but rather its abandonment of individual responsibility. You can argue Christian was showing “individual responsibility” by going after anyone remotely connected to the death of his daughter and turning them to chopped liver, but at no time does he attempt to exhaust more rational, effective options. And there was no consideration that his daughter was, ultimately, responsible for her own fatuous lifestyle.

    With other revenge flicks, I can see from where the protagonsit is coming. I could accept Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH…I could even accept Raquel Welch as HANNIE CAULDER! These films had understandable psychological frameworks and both movies played upon the theme of the protagonsit “becoming the very thing he/she despises” and the consequences of becoming such. They made you think about the dangers and impracticalities of going vigilante. Contrast that to THE HORSEMAN, where Christian, much like his messianic namesake, comes across as Superman, utilising an array of torture devices that seem to be inspired by the works of Rube Goldberg’s hitherto unknown evil twin brother.

    If you wish for THE HORSEMAN to be your catharsis, I’m certain you could do better watching any of a number of 1980s action films, countless of which are more fun than this dull, dull, dull load of crud that will do nothing to restore general public confidence in Australian cinema.

    Can’t wait for those two-week runs…

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