Yeah, I definitely needed to wait a while before getting around to this one.
The Hunt was originally slated for release in September of 2019 before news came down that it would be delayed indefinitely. This was reportedly due to the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, though of course nobody believed that weak-sauce excuse. Even at the time, there were reports that test screenings had gone terribly and the film’s reported political bent got everyone in a frenzy. It certainly didn’t help that President Trump — always eager to chase a headline, especially with his re-election campaign coming up — got his followers riled up in opposition to this militant product of “liberal Hollywood.”
In February 2020, producer Jason Blum (it’s a low-budget American-made horror film, of course fucking Jason Blum is involved) reported that the film would be released in March of 2020 without any edits or reshoots. Then the COVID lockdowns happened and it made a worldwide box office gross of just over $15 million — just barely enough to cover its reported budget.
This movie made headlines for half a year before it was finally released, and that’s probably the worst thing that could’ve happened to it. From the opening kill, it’s perfectly obvious that this was a film made for the Streisand Effect. The clear and explicit goal was to get audiences riled up over a taboo twist, bringing in curious audience members to see what the fuss was all about.
Trouble is, this particular case worked all too well. The headlines were so ubiquitous that the twist became common knowledge well in advance and the film had absolutely nothing without it.
(SPOILER NOTE: From this point onward, I’m not going to bother mincing spoilers. Everyone who’s been paying attention knew about the premise a year ago without even seeing the picture. If you’re still not up to speed, take comfort with the knowledge that you’re better off disregarding the film entirely. You’ve been warned.)
To take it from the top, The Hunt is a spin on “The Most Dangerous Game”, in which the uber-wealthy abduct unsuspecting poor people and hunt them for sport. The kicker is that the wealthy are liberal elites, the poor people are all bigoted conservatives, and this is an act of political warfare.
Incidentally, the liberal overlords explicitly refer to their targets as “deplorables” and “rednecks”, while one target calls the other a “snowflake”. And this is all within the opening fifteen minutes. Even without advance knowledge of the film’s moral “twist”, they telegraph it loud and clear right up front.
In theory, what we’ve got here would be a case of “bad versus evil”, in which we could watch both sides torture the shit out of each other with the knowledge and satisfaction that regardless of who wins, both are going to suffer.
In practice, the film goes for comedy. To repeat: We’re watching poor defenseless people getting brutally murdered, and the film is playing this for laughs. There are numerous reasons why this doesn’t work.
First of all, the film is directed by Craig Zobel, because when I want somebody to direct a morally complex political satire that perfectly sits atop the razor-thin line between comedy and horror, I want the guy who co-created goddamn “Homestar Runner”. And also, if I want a devilishly intricate plot with all manner of secrets that resolve with a satisfying payoff, of course I want screenplay co-written by that con artist hack Damon Lindelof.
(Side note: Yes, the “Watchmen” sequel series on HBO was great, and I’ve heard good things about “The Leftovers”. Stick to TV, Damon.)
Secondly, characters are getting killed off by the handful even before the fifteen-minute mark. Before the characters have any idea of what they’re doing, while they have zero chance at defending themselves, and we don’t even have the first clue who’s behind all this or how they’re operating. This is a one-sided match-up, and it’s not fun or comical to watch. Regardless of political leanings, this is a slaughter and it’s just mean.
Thirdly, because the characters are getting killed off so early, they’re dying before we even know them. We have no reason to root for or against them. We have no reason to sympathize or hate them. So there’s no reason to feel horror or humor or excitement or anything else from these kills.
Even at the best of times, presenting an effectively balanced comedy/horror is a high-risk/high-reward gambit. Likewise, there are very few ways to utterly nail a political comedy, and any number of ways to nuclear bomb it. The both of them together — a balanced political comedy/horror — has absolutely zero room for error, such that it could either be a work of genius or a tin-eared dumpster fire with no room in between. And this movie tanked all its chances within the first act.
Every character in here (with one exception, whom we’ll get to in a minute) is painted in the broadest possible strokes, speaking in canned partisan talking points without any attempt at intelligence or depth. I presume this is part of the effort at comedy, reducing the characters to cartoons so their bloody deaths are all the funnier. But in practice, it only serves to make the political “commentary” brainless to the point of insulting.
There is, however, one minor exception that comes when the plot finally gets going and the characters get wise to the fact that everything in here is an elaborate ruse. This means that conservative paranoia, with its predilection for conspiracy theories and blatant denial of reality, comes into play. Thus a crucial facet of modern political discourse becomes a wrinkle that might have added to the suspense.
In practice, though this does work a few times, the resulting tension is pretty much always resolved within minutes or even seconds. It also doesn’t help that the cannon fodder is always gullible when they have every reason to be suspicious, and they’re screaming conspiracy theories when it’s in their best interests to shut the fuck up.
Take all of these mixed messages together, and what are the filmmakers trying to say about partisan efforts at subverting and denying reality? Fuck if I know!
All told, there are two reasons and two reasons only to watch this film. One of them is Hilary Swank. She doesn’t really show up until the third act, but she makes up for lost time in a big way. The second is Betty Gilpin, in the role of our protagonist. From start to finish, Gilpin delivers a dynamic and jaw-dropping performance, effortlessly nailing the balance between tough and crazy that the whole film should’ve been aspiring to.
Gilpin more than proves herself as a capable action lead, effortlessly selling a woman far more cool-headed and badass than anyone thought to give her credit for. Major kudos are due for Gilpin’s big climactic fight scene with Swank at the end, that shit was more brutal and funny and whip-smart than the entire film deserved.
Because here’s the thing: It turns out that Gilpin’s character was brought into this by mistake. It turns out that our protagonist was mistaken for a conservative bigot of the same name, and there’s absolutely nothing in the film to suggest that our protagonist cares about politics one way or the other.
The film put so much effort into its politically fucked-up morality, only to cop out at the end regarding the one character worth a damn. FAIL.
I can only hope that Betty Gilpin gets more work ASAP, because her performance here deserves a far better movie than The Hunt. The action scenes and kills are impressive enough, but this is still a movie so wrong-headed and shallow that it’s frankly insulting. The filmmakers had no idea how to craft a decent scare, a decent joke, or a coherent political point, and they didn’t even have the guts to commit to their inverted political morality. All they could do is try their best to offend everyone on all sides of the political spectrum.
Fuck this movie, go see Ready or Not instead.