Movies · Reviews

‘Cub’ Earns Merit Badges In Gorgeous Brutality and a Fresh Take on the Familiar

By  · Published on September 20th, 2014

Fantastic Fest

Boy Scouts, amirite? Always hating on atheists, gays and random sticks they find in the woods. But in Belgium at least they’re far from the worst thing hanging out in the forest.

Cub follows a gaggle of scouts along on a camping trip meant to engender team-building and survival skills, but the truth behind a local legend threatens to impede the former – by killing off members of the team – while creating a sink or swim scenario with the latter. A feral boy said to live in the woods is rumored to be behind a series of disappearances, but even if he’s real he may not be the biggest threat wandering the wild.

Sam (Maurice Luijten, who bears a striking resemblance to a young Belgian River Phoenix) joined the scouts with the baggage of a mysterious and violent past trauma, and the constant bullying he suffers at the hands of others does nothing to calm his inner turmoil. He’s dismissed after trying to tell the others that he saw a boy in the woods and instead forms a strained and silent relationship with the muddied and masked child. And then they all start earning merit badges in death.

The three adults along for the trip are of differing minds on Sam and his dark past, but it’s the assistant troop leader Baloo who feels compelled to give him the most grief. He pushes Sam’s buttons and encourages by example some of the other scouts to do the same. Chris meanwhile takes the opposite tact and tries to be more inclusive with the boy, but the negative attention far outweighs the good so when the opportunity arrives for Sam to have a “friend” of his own he leaps at it.

But there’s a cost to befriending a feral, mask-wearing boy with blood on his hands.

Director/co-writer Jonas Govaerts (who scripted along with Roel Mondelaers) delivers a debut feature – after a career spent making music videos – that manages a refreshing mix of terror, action and depth. We’ve seen “killer in the woods” movies before, but while Cub uses the basic framework of the subgenre it layers the story with characters and details that feel fresh and creative in their execution. Those scripted strengths come packaged in one hell of a gorgeous film accompanied by an eclectic and propulsive score that drives the action as it raises the pulse.

There’s a smartness to the script in how it builds its characters to the point of depth and variety, but it also does great things with the antagonists. The bullies, both in and outside of the troop, are more than just caricatures. They’re simple, sure, but they’re more than just means to an end. They’re still bullies of course, so you won’t be too upset when death comes a calling. Those deaths run the gamut from the simple to the elaborate, and the film’s production design team earns points for those in the latter category (as they do for the places the feral boy calls home).

There’s also a sense that anyone is fair game. The nice troop leader, the cute female cook, Sam himself… the film creates an atmosphere where anyone could bite it once the bloodletting start rolling. What I’m saying is scout kids die. They won’t in the inevitable American remake of course, but here? Their whittling ability won’t be saving their asses.

There are some missteps in the final fifteen minutes or so, and while they don’t stall the film they do tap the brakes a bit on the audiences’ enthusiasm for all that came before. And as a fair bit of warning, there is a lengthy scene of violence against a dog too. It’s implied and accomplished via editing, and it serves a valid and legitimate narrative purpose, but it’s guaranteed to lose some viewers.

Cub is an exciting horror film, and that’s a rare achievement especially when you realize that it’s not a lightweight piece of comedic horror. There is dramatic brutality on display here and the kills are serious business, but the sharp cinematography, dynamic score (by Steve Moore) and aggressively thrilling editing keep things moving at a relentlessly engaging pace.

The Upside: Beautiful cinematography; adrenaline-fueled score enhances the action; strong acting by all involve including the kids; character depth; smart writing; takes the brutality seriously

The Downside: Some potentially weighty missteps in the final act; implied dog violence is fairly severe

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.