This ripped-from-the-headlines French genre thriller has pace and action to spare. So why does it feel so damn boring?
Eric Valette used his feature debut Maléfique, a Lovecraftian horror with a prison setting, as a passport to helm American J-horror remake One Missed Call, and since then has made a French political thriller (State Affairs) and another American horror (Super Hybrid) whose very title advertises not only its vehicular concerns, but also Valette's magpie approach to genre tropes. Now The Prey offers a convenient summary of his career to date, beginning in a prison, before breaking out into broader thriller territories, with a definite eye on the American market.
Writers Laurent Turner and Luc Bossi (the latter also producing) have ripped elements of their script straight from the headlines: the film's serial-killing sociopath, Jean-Louis Maurel (a chillingly nerdy Stéphane Debac), shares his modus operandi more with the real-life Michel Fourniret (aka 'the Ogre of Ardennes') who, just like Maurel, raped and murdered a string of girls with the help of his own wife, and also killed the girlfriend of a former bank-robbing cellmate, taking the hidden loot to purchase himself a castle in the countryside.
Yet The Prey shifts its focus onto the fictionalised figure of Maurel's cellmate Franck Adrien (Albert Dupontel) as he races to escape prison and rescue his speech-impaired daughter Amélie (Jaïa Caltagirone) from Maurel's clutches. Framed for Maurel's past crimes, Adrien must also avoid both a national manhunt (led by Alice Taglioni's sympathetic inspector Claire Linné) and a private vendetta from the parents of one of Maurel's many victims.
It is the perfect set-up for some serial cat and mouse, with the roles of hunter and prey repeatedly reassigned in a merry-go-round of chase sequences. Adrien makes for a rather unengaging (if morally slippery) protagonist, but his unstoppable drive and mobility cover for his blandness and keep the narrative racing forwards.
Adrien's motivation is less money or revenge than the pursuit of a family ideal, emblematised in Amélie's childish drawing of herself together with Maman and Papa on an Edenic beach. In fact, these three are only ever together on prison visits, and Amélie soon forms a rather different family unit with Maurel and his complicit wife Christine (Natacha Regnier) where, despite the apparent normalcy of backyard barbecues, clothes shopping and country drives, in reality Amélie is the mute captive of her mother's murderers. By the end, Amélie still clings to both her drawing and the hope of a future with her real father, but the drawing has become conspicuously crumpled and worn, while an even rougher copy of it is now in the hands of the police.
Unfortunately that tattered-looking, second-generation facsimile also encapsulates the derivative tendencies of The Prey, whose Gothic late-night cemetery visits, frantic chases and literal cliffhangers seem like so many rip-offs from other, better French emulations (Tell No One, Anything For Her) of the Hollywood thriller. Like Adrien, the viewer finds a worse-for-wear corpse where there should be buried treasure.
Prison/fugitive/psycho genre mash-up. Yay!
Fast and furious, but also dull and derivative.
Despite featuring a prison bust, The Prey is no breakout.