Someone or something is shooting unsuspecting drivers from a remote mountaintop in''King of the Hill'' a wilderness thriller with an unexpected streak of social conscience from Spanish director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego.

Someone or something is shooting unsuspecting drivers from a remote mountaintop in”King of the Hill” a wilderness thriller with an unexpected streak of social conscience from Spanish director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego. Though not inspired by a specific videogame, pic comments on the form and implications of first-person shooter adventures, particularly when the culprit(s) are finally revealed in its climactic act. Until then, aud is left guessing as to the unseen sniper’s motives, plunged alongside pic’s frantic Everyman into a visceral struggle for survival. Subtitles could limit interest to horror aficionados when the Weinstein Co. releases Stateside.

Smarter than its “Most Dangerous Game”-style plot might suggest, “King of the Hill” provides Lopez-Gallego with both a stylish showcase for his talents and a platform for social commentary, though the message feels like something of an afterthought. Much as the far gorier “High Tension” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake did for foreign-born directors Alexandre Aja and Marcus Nispel, respectively, “King of the Hill” could conceivably lead to higher-profile assignments for Lopez-Gallego (whose earlier indie features never snared U.S. distribution).

Helmer draws inspiration from such divergent sources as “Deliverance” and Michael Haneke, crafting an immersive scenario in which Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and aud alike must figure out the conditions for staying alive as they go. Quim is on his way to patch things up with his ex-girlfriend when, confronted with beautiful Bea (Maria Valverde) at a gas station en route, he indulges in a passionate lavatory quickie.

The mysterious stranger swipes his wallet and disappears, leaving Quim disoriented, but that’s nothing compared to the surprise that awaits him a few miles down the road, when a well-concealed sniper shoots his motor, forcing Quim off the road. Not realizing he’s in danger, Quim approaches a nearby hunter for help — and so begins the character’s horrifying realization that he’s at the mercy of someone hunting humans.

Running for his life, he passes Bea, but isn’t sure he can trust her. Is she in on it? Who is trying to kill them and why? The two actors appear ordinary enough for aud to look past their personalities and identify directly with the immediate threat, which Lopez-Gallego amplifies through clever sound design and intimidating geography (an amalgam of Guadalajara and Soria, Spain). If the sniper is above them, there’s virtually nowhere they can hide, and efforts to protect themselves are thwarted by obstacles at every turn.

In classic Hitchcock tradition, the endangered couple are approached by a police vehicle, but instead of responding to their frantic pleas, the authorities put them more directly in harm’s way. Trapped in the crosshairs, they behave as anyone might, checking for cell phone signals and such, only more slowly, which makes for nerve-wracking spectatorship. Backstories are left deliberately vague, forcing us to figure out their characters based on their actions.

There comes a point when Quim, far from being the valorous Jimmy Stewart type, must decide between saving himself and aiding Bea, who is actually the stronger of the two characters. In his split-second decision, the movie makes it clear that even among its protagonists, morality is a many-shaded thing. When it comes time to confront the sniper head-on, Quim no longer serves as a proxy for the audience, but as a man so far removed from the rules of everyday reality that he is now capable of anything.

Shooting on gritty Super 16mm, cinematographer Jose David Montero captures the atmosphere and texture of the forest by natural light. It’s a beautiful wilderness turned sinister by circumstances, score (David Crespo’s music keeps things tense, but leaves room for the loneliness of the environment) and the chilling implications of its twist.

King of the Hill

Spain

Production

A Weinstein Co. release (in U.S.) of a Coach14 presentation of a Goodfellas, Telecinco Cinema, Decontrabando production. (International sales: Coach14, Paris.) Produced by Juan Manuel Arance, Juan Pita, Miguel Bardem, Alvaro Augustin. Executive producers, Arance, Pita, Elena Manrique.Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego. Screenplay, Javiel Gullon, Lopez-Gallego.

Crew

Camera (color, Super 16mm-to-35mm), Jose David Montero; editor, Lopez-Gallego; music, David Crespo; art director, Peio Villalba; costume designer, Tatiana Hernandez; sound, Wildtrack; assistant director, Susana Gonzalez. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 10, 2007. Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Leonardo Sbaraglia, Maria Valverde, Thomas Riordan, Andres Juste, Francisco Olmo.

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