Written by: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, and Ike Barinholtz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The most talked movie of the year is one that no one's actually seen.
Provocation and exploitation are familiar (if not compulsive) bedfellows, forever intertwined because let’s face it: a good number of those old grindhouse staples were made explicitly to piss off people with incendiary politics or plain bad taste. Some of these are either insightful or at least go all the way with their distaste; a select few manage to do both. More plentiful are movies like The Hunt, which don’t really accomplish either. Because of an unexpected—and somewhat ironic—boost in notoriety following its delayed release, it finally arrives with its reputation preceding it: this is the movie where liberal elites hunt deplorables. It’s a premise meant to get a rise out of the former, but of course it was mostly the latter that raised a stink last summer because conservatives largely don’t understand satire, not to mention the fact that they’re the victims in this latest rendition of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Well, to be fair, it seems like everyone involved in The Hunt doesn’t really get satire either since this movie really refuses to completely embrace the premise, choosing instead to engage in taking the piss about of both sides. Like a sophomore in high school whose politics are largely formulated by South Park, it decides that both sides are dumb, actually, and proceeds to savage both with all the accuracy and subtlety of a wild shotgun blast. It’s still provocation, sure, but it’s the emptiest sort of juvenile finger-poking imaginable that’s made all the more frustrating because The Hunt does flex some pretty gnarly genre chops.
We open on a cryptic text exchange amongst a group of unseen liberals bemoaning the latest state of political affairs. One does offer some hope, though: the latest round of The Hunt is on the horizon, which will allow them to vent their frustrations on a group of unsuspecting red state yokels. The event indeed opens with a bang, as about a half-dozen of the prey is easily dispatched by landmines, headshots, and grenades. One of the captives (Betty Gilpin) proves to be especially resilient, though, and swiftly turns the tables by taking the fight to these “liberal elites,” particularly enigmatic ringleader Athena (Hillary Swank), the orchestrater of this elaborate game.
We know—or at least we think we know—the gist of it all up front, of course. This, I think is one of the film’s first major missteps: in lieu of a cold opening with The Hunt itself—which would have made audiences just as dizzied and disoriented as the prey—the film opens with an extended prologue that lays the dynamic bare. I can’t help but think it would have been much more interesting to let that dynamic unfold more organically, if only because it’d be a neat manipulation of audience sympathy. (Let’s just imagine the brouhaha over the politics hadn’t already spoiled all of this, of course.) But instead, we’re left with a movie that wants to inundate us with obvious political discourse from the jump, as characters on both sides spit dialogue that may has well been culled from social media. “Snowflake,” a doomed redneck hisses just before she blows her own brains out. “Climate change is real,” a self-proclaimed godless elite insists as he watches one of his victims expire. “White people—we’re the worst,” this same man deadpans after arguing about representation and NPR with his wife.
You get the picture, if only because you’ve seen it thoroughly painted during the last several years on social media. The Hunt doesn’t do anything especially interesting with it, though, unless you count painting the liberal side as the villains here. To be sure, the easy thing to do here would be to flip it to the more conventional dynamic, with conservatives hunting liberals since—let’s be real—that’s a more believable scenario. But let’s humor what screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have done here and see The Hunt as a naked attempt to rile up the extremely online crowd by attributing their valid concerns to a group of bloodthirsty psychopaths. You could make the argument that it’s particularly satirizing performative wokeness, but there’s never any indication that these character’s aren’t legitimately concerned about racism, climate change, or cultural appropriation. You know, stuff that’s actually important, and it makes you look like an asshole if you make light of it, as The Hunt so often does.
This is the part where the filmmakers would like me—the type of person who finds the MAGA movement to be repulsive—to further launch into a rant about the misguided politics, but The Hunt doesn’t even earn that. Not only does it paint its “victims” as the crass, gun-clutching, xenophobic assholes they actually are, but some late-movie twists and turns essentially let everyone off the hook. It cops out with its insistence that both sides are wrong and further muddies the waters with a climactic reveal that turns the conceit on its head. Everything isn’t quite what it seems, including the political dynamic the entire movie’s provocation hinges upon, allowing The Hunt to effectively stand in the middle and laugh at the idea of political discourse instead of cleverly engaging with it. Had it stuck to its guns, I probably would have respected The Hunt more. I would have likely been revolted, sure, but at least I would have felt something instead of feeling compelled to shrug it off.
But it’s not completely dismissible, if only because it is a fairly entertaining riff on the manhunt movie. Director Craig Zobel is at his best when he embraces the twisted thrills of the premise with a splatter movie approach, dreaming up increasingly violent methods of skewering an impressive cast boasting the likes of Ike Barinholtz, Macon Blair, Glenn Howerton, Emma Roberts and Ethan Supplee. The Hunt is both outrageously gruesome and ruthless in the way it dispatches just about everyone. One death is particularly startling in it suddenness, almost as if Zobel and company were trying to one-up Scream by killing off a prominent face as soon as possible. Most importantly, the effects are unabashedly gross in a way that’s rare to see in wide-release major studio films. There are no less than two full-body explosions here, and that’s not even mentioning all of the heads that are gleefully splattered along the way.
There’s more to recommend beyond the mindless battlefield carnage, too. A sequence where frantic survivors seek refuge in a gas station, only to find out it’s part of The Hunt is a clever enough wrinkle that leaves me wishing the script had a bit more clever bits like that. What’s most interesting about this scene is that it introduces the idea that The Hunters are specifically hunting down people they’ve interacted with online, a development that’s sorely underexplored for most of the movie, which quickly degenerates into Gilpin moving from Point A to Point B, mowing down anyone who crosses her path.
To be sure, Gilpin’s turn as Crystal, a southern-fried Mississippian, almost single-handedly makes The Hunt worthwhile. Perhaps in a glib effort to insist it shouldn’t be taken seriously, the film already has a cockeyed sense of humor about it before she emerges as the lead. Gilpin takes it to another level with a wry, knowing turn that stops just short of winking at the camera to let you know she’s in on the joke. With an exaggerated drawl and a weathered, steely-eyed expression affixed to her face, she methodically steals each scene with an underplayed sense of confidence. Her life-and-death struggle feels almost feels like a minor inconvenience in the way she calmly and patiently works her way through each ordeal, which makes sense once we learn she works at a car rental agency. Something tells me she’s had to put up with her share of shit, and Gilpin’s offbeat performance provides an askew energy that The Hunt sorely needs to further separate it from the pack.
Because outside of its faux-provocative conceit (which it doesn’t even have the courage to see through anyway), The Hunt’s politics don’t do it many favors. You sense that even with its twists and turns, it’s still striving to say something about how we as a country really don’t know or listen to each other and would rather fight to the death instead, but, again, let’s be real: who can even take this seriously when one side—and it’s the side that’s okay with separating families, imprisoning children, suppressing the vote, denying climate change, demonizing marginalized communities, terrorizing the poor—definitively shouldn’t be listened to? No, they don’t deserve to be hunted down and killed for sport, nor does The Hunt advocate for that; however, there is the insinuation that they’re somehow on equal moral footing with their extreme liberal counterparts, a viewpoint I just can’t share.
I guess you could say The Hunt “got me” after all since I’m ranting against its politics anyway. Maybe this is its ultimate point: our culture has a compulsive need to be a part of the discourse, with everyone putting on grand displays online as part of a charade that the filmmakers here find to be absurd. Maybe The Hunt is advocating that we should all just log off, a notion that’s more apolitical than it is political since it’s not exactly some grand statement to insist everything and everyone is stupid and that the true victims are everyone caught in the middle of the fray. Because if you’re standing on the sidelines shrugging and mocking the problem, that still makes you part of the problem. Granted, not every edgelord provocation like this features Hilary Swank delivering a monologue about a perfect grilled cheese sandwich like The Hunt does, but forgive me for thinking that’s not enough for me to take it seriously. Cool gore, though.
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