King of the Hill (15)

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The Spanish thriller King of The Hill throws a clever feint in its opening minutes, appearing to be heading in one direction before wrenching the steering-wheel violently and careening off somewhere quite different.

An unexceptional thirtysomething (Leonardo Sbaraglia) on the way to see his ex-girlfriend has his wallet lifted at a motorway service station and drives off in pursuit of the young woman (Maria Valverde) he thinks has robbed him. He eventually catches up with her on a country backroad, but by this point both realise that they are in danger from an unseen shooter who has disabled their vehicles and now hunts them through the gnarled and forbiddingly impersonal mountain landscape.

You keep asking questions – Who's the dead-shot gunning for them? Is this marksman playing a sadistic game? Is there more than one? – and Javier Gullon's screenplay keeps blanking them. For as long as we have to guess, the film is a whip-smart exercise in stalk-and-flee dynamics, reminiscent of classics such as Deliverance and Southern Comfort, the latter, for me, still the most gripping of the backwoods-killers genre. The thought that either of the lead characters might get a bullet in the skull at any minute (both are wounded early on) concentrates our attention brilliantly; their absolute helplessness begins to feel terrifyingly real.

Only when director Lopez-Gallego switches viewpoint from the imperilled duo to their tormentor does the tension start to sag. I don't want to give too much away, but the film definitely loses some potency when we start looking down the crosshairs of the stalker's high-velocity rifle. And the revelation of his identity opens another can of worms altogether, so best avoid the reviews (too late if you've read this far) before seeing it. How much scarier if the hunter had stayed a shadowy abstraction, like the truck-driver in Duel. See it anyway, because the tautness of the first hour is tremendous, and features something I never thought to see in such a movie: the spectacle of a man, hiding inside a car from his would-be killer, and doing something we would all probably do in real life: actually whimper.