Little Miss Sunshine goes the way of La Femme Nikita in “Final Girl,” a mildly intriguing thriller of comeuppance that leaves you wanting more — not more archly stylized violence or repetitive revenge fantasy, perhaps, but more insight into the connection between the eponymous assassin (Abigail Breslin) and her highly skilled mentor (Wes Bentley). Then again, with its seemingly deliberate absence of context or character development, this patchy, underwritten thriller could almost pass for a critique of any number of genre forebears in which the mere presence of a hot, ass-kicking female avenger is meant to seem subversive. Drawing out a thin, largely tension-free payback scenario involving four murderous jocks with a penchant for sweet young blondes, Tyler Shields’ so-so but promising directing debut could get a boost from its name leads in otherwise modest theatrical and VOD play.
Not to be confused with “The Final Girls,” a cheeky horror sendup currently making the festival rounds, “Final Girl” represents a peculiar mish-mash of generic influences. Its title may be a reference to the slasher-thriller cliche in which a virginal young heroine emerges the lone survivor of a killer’s rampage, but this is less a horror exercise than the latest entry in an action-movie subgenre that includes “Kill Bill” and “Kick-Ass,” “Sin City” and “Sucker Punch,” and various other pictures that have tried to pass off their girl-with-a-sword fetishes as some kind of feminist statement, with varying degrees of success. Adam Prince’s screenplay betrays a twinge of deadpan self-awareness in its opening scene, which finds the calm, emotionless William (Bentley) recruiting an equally calm, emotionless young orphan, Veronica (Gracyn Shinyei), to be his next trainee. That Veronica seems utterly unfazed by her parents’ recent deaths is enough to convince William that he’s found his girl.
There’s something refreshing and faintly amusing about the no-nonsense way in which “Final Girl” cuts through the expository fat, wasting no time on Veronica’s and William’s tragic backstories as it immediately flashes forward 12 years. Veronica (now played by a blonde-haired Breslin) is at an advanced stage of her training under William, who teaches her valuable if vague lessons on how to withstand the elements, anticipate danger, and put an enemy assailant in a lethal chokehold. It’s all essential preparation for her final exam, which will pit her against four young men who have been luring attractive young women into the nearby woods at night, where they proceed to hunt them down and kill them for sport. Serving herself up as the boys’ latest unsuspecting quarry, dressed in a sleeveless red number that should really set off more of a warning flag (the costumes were designed by Maria Livingstone), Veronica is clearly outnumbered. But with more than a few skills and secret weapons at her disposal, it’s no spoiler to suggest she’ll find a way to even the odds and the score.
The lengthy buildup to the carnage, during which Veronica and the boys vie for the upper hand in a game of “Truth or Dare,” has a teasing predator-or-prey ambiguity. The killers themselves are better delineated than they had to be; Alexander Ludwig (also in “The Final Girls,” incidentally) makes a fittingly callow ringleader, while Logan Huffman acts up a lip-smacking storm as a particularly screw-loose, ax-wielding member of the gang. But for the most part, the subsequent fist-pummeling action feels wearyingly repetitive and predictable, despite the regular flashes of visual inspiration in Gregory Middleton’s lensing, with its subtle lighting and hallucinatory imagery. Before turning his attention to film directing, Shields was a photographer whose controversy-stirring work often set women (like Lindsay Lohan) against blood-spattered backdrops; “Final Girl,” with its striking visuals and double-edged take on female empowerment, would seem to proceed more or less naturally from his work.
Breslin, whose recent work includes the forthcoming Ryan Murphy show “Scream Queens” and the underrated zombie thriller “Maggie,” seems to be enjoying her foray to the dark side, and she brings just the right amount of understated, knowing (but never wink-wink) attitude to the role of a young fighter who remains recognizably human and fallible rather than becoming a robotic killing machine. As for Bentley (a regular on Murphy’s “American Horror Story”), there are few actors better suited to embodying ominous likability, and he and Breslin generate enough sly chemistry to make you wish they shared more screen time; their last scene together (set in an old-fashioned diner that, as one of the principal locations, lends the movie a dreamlike ’50s ambience) suggests enough untapped depths to furnish a few follow-up adventures. “Final Girl” may not, in the end, be much of a movie, but William and Veronica would hardly be the worst choice to anchor a series of their own.