Emma Le Roux (Leandie du Randt) is a South African school teacher who has just wrapped up work and is heading home to spend the holidays with her father. As she’s takes the long drive to his farm through the vast desert of Karoo, she has some car trouble. She looks for help and sees six men kill a policeman.
Panicked with nowhere else to go, Emma runs into the expansive desert terrain. This group of baddies begin to hunt her down, intent on eliminating the one witness to this murder.
While these bad guys believe Emma is just an inconvenience they need to quickly take care of and feel confident it won’t be too difficult to catch her, kill her and get back on the road – they’re in for a surprise!
As they learn, Emma knows how to survive in this rough terrain, is more than ready to defend herself and is quite capable of turning the tables on these men. She won’t be such easy prey. It turns out, these bad guys are the ones who need to be worried.
Hunting Emma is a low-budget South African revenge thriller with a story that could easily cross language barriers because of its simplicity. It is similar to other female-led revenge films like I Spit On Your Grave, Even Lambs Have Teeth and Revenge. A seemingly helpless woman is attacked by some men who believe they have the upper hand and all the power, until it’s revealed their targeted victim is much more cunning and dangerous than they first thought.
It’s as stripped down a story as can be. Desert setting. Lone woman running from six dangerous men who want to kill her. At first she appears vulnerable, with all the power behind her aggressors. Then little by little, Emma takes more and more control of the situation and this group of men get smaller and smaller. It’s not hard to get lost here.
The group consists of a no-nonsense toothpick chomping leader, two experienced henchman and a trio who are ill equipped to be part of any kind of criminal enterprise. They all butt heads and tensions steadily get raised as they walk further and further into this desert after Emma. The guys are all despicable and heartless. You really don’t like any of them and eagerly want to see them get what they deserve. It’s fun to watch as their arrogance and bravado starts to slip away and they grow more and more nervous as the hunt moves along.
Meanwhile, Emma focuses on surviving her predicament by using her head and begins to use the terrain as an advantage over the baddies. She knows quite a few clever tricks. Covering her desert tracks, getting the men to move further and further into the unforgiving heat without supplies or water. It’s almost like this group falls for the bait by continuing to follow her out here.
As the hunt proceeds in the desert, Emma’s father is informed by his friend of Emma’s abandoned car sitting all alone on this dusty hot road. They immediately wonder, What happened to her? Where did she go? What kind of trouble is she in?
Through sporadic flashbacks we learn how Emma has been taught survival skills from her father and she has remembered them all.
It’s a fun scene as we see how he deduces what the situation his daughter is in by reading the desert terrain and then gives a slight smile, knowing Emma is more than capable to take care of herself and these bad men are the ones who should be worried. He begins to explain Emma’s background meticulously to his friend and it does get to be a bit longwinded and disrupts the unfolding tension of the desert chase. We get it, he’s an ex-special forces soldier who’s trained his daughter in combat and survival skills.
After we learn of her history, Emma’s father patiently sits back to wait her return.
There is an unnecessary subplot that at the start of the film Emma became a pacifist and doesn’t want to hurt others. Of course, in her current situation she shakes off those beliefs, as there’s no alternatives for her to escape from the bad guys. This trait is meant to give Emma more shadings, but it’s really not needed or becomes a struggle for her to overcome.
Admittedly, none of Hunting Emma is particularly original, but it’s the sequences, gradual buildup and payoffs that make it so satisfying. Directed by Byron Davis, it was his first feature film and it’s a terrific debut. He manages to make you feel the heat and the dryness of the Karoo desert. The desolate setting works to create a barren landscape no one can just walk out of. At times you feel the heat and thirst that’s growing for all the characters.
The film never tries to add anything to it’s stripped down premise. You won’t see Emma’s father or the police racing to the rescue. It’s just Emma and the six bad guys. It doesn’t ever stray from its simple story.
Hunting Emma doesn’t rely on big bombastic action scenes every few minutes. It takes its time to slowly build up suspense and get the characters all where they need to be for each encounter Emma has with them. The stylish way the film uses angles, the slow pace, the extreme close-ups, the editing, they all work to drain every bit of suspense and threat out of each encounter Emma finds herself trying to escape from. A climactic confrontation at a farmhouse plays out like a Sergio Leone showdown.
The entire cast all do a good job with their roles, especially du Randt who morphs her Emma from a meek frightened woman at the start into a total badass by the end. She kind of reminded me a bit of a younger Charlize Theron.
Hunting Emma is one of those films where you might stumble on one day, decide to give it a chance and find yourself rewarded by how entertaining it is. That’s how I ended up watching it. I had never heard of it and was genuinely surprised how much I enjoyed it. It’s one of those little hidden gem of a movies that are floating around out there.
Here’s a short no spoken words trailer for Hunting Emma
Here’s a longer version of the trailer in Afrikaan