The Hunt (2020)
The ultimate human hunting experience.
Director Craig Zobel, Z for Zachariah (2015), and screenwriters Damon Lindelof, Watchmen (2019), and Nick Cuse, Maniac (2018), courted perhaps a bit too much controversy when they tried to marry the old The Most Dangerous Game narrative model to current moment Blue vs. Red/ Elites vs. Deplorables political controversies. We were originally supposed to get this thing back in September last year, but mass shootings in the U.S. cities of Drayton and El Paso saw Universal and Blumhouse start to sweat over releasing such a violent and politically charged film at that particular time (although, given the frequency of mass shootings in the States, you’re more or less firing blind in that regard anyway).
Then Trump publicly condemned the film; the Tweeter in Chief, who had not seen it then and probably hasn’t now, said the film was ‘… made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!’ Which feels like a willful misinterpretation of the elevator pitch to me, but whatevs.
Then, of course, COVID-19 shuttered the cinemas, which means The Hunt’s brief U.S. theatrical run was not to be repeated locally. And so The Hunt is now, like so many recent films, getting a Video on Demand premiere in Australia, where it should do rather well; it’s a brisk and brutal little piece of work, more blunt than brilliant, that splits the difference on its political … well, ‘subtext’ is the wrong word, so maybe ‘sidetext’ works? In any case, for a supposedly divisive polemical film, this is an MA-rated matinee both the tolerant left and the True-Blue Crew can enjoy, so long as they’re down for some blackly comical gore.
The premise is simple — a mixed bag of working-class right-wingers are shanghaied off to a remote hunting lodge where they’re the ones being hunted, stalked and slaughtered for sport by a cadre of Liberal Elites who see them as less than human. In the world of the film, the crazier corners of the internet have cottoned onto this evil conspiracy, calling it ‘Manorgate.’ While that might have sounded nuts a few years back, in a post-Pizzagate world, it seems all too plausible, and lest we forget, Eli Roth’s 2005 subgenre-defining Hostel spun around the same ‘what-if?’ axis.
Indeed, this story model can lean towards action or horror — John Woo’s Hard Target (1993) and Ernest Dickerson’s Surviving the Game (1994) both favor the former, but The Hunt, much like Walter Hill’s Vietnam War parable Southern Comfort (1981) splits the difference pretty evenly. While there are some spectacularly bloody kills as the victims (including Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, and Ike Barinholtz) are either brutally winnowed down or manage to turn the tables on their pursuers, the tone is more ‘thriller’ rather than ‘horror,’ and there’s more gunplay than slasher aesthetics (come to think of it, the 1986 paintballers-vs-mass-murderers cheapie The Zero Boys probably nails the ratio best).
Much like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), the gradual whittling away of the cast allows a protagonist to emerge almost by default. Here it’s Betty Gilpin’s Crystal, whose quick assessment of her dire situation and military ruthlessness when fighting back against the hunters speak to an interesting personal history that is, quite rightly, never fully revealed. Instead, it’s her competence that makes her the rightful depository for our sympathies; she’s not a whacko conspiracy theorist like Suplee’s character, nor an out-and-out racist, nor an effete elite like the people pursuing her (the reveal of why all this is happening is the slyest satirical element in play), but a resourceful, working-class hero — effectively the center of the political horseshoe the film is describing. Everyone has feet of clay other than Crystal, none more so than the Elites’ leader Athena (Hilary Swank), whose motives are not political but personal and, when you get down to it, rather petty.
Which means that the barbs of The Hunt’s political satire are blunted, with Zobel and the gang landing on nominally sensible centrism rather than a more radical and interesting ethos. The Hunt doesn’t even embrace the anarchic, free-wheeling, everyone’s-a-fair-target sensibilities of South Park (1997) or Family Guy (1999), although it kind of pretends to; rather than risking offending everyone or even anyone, the waters are muddied to the point where you’d have to go out of your way to find any of its caricatures genuinely offensive. The current political divisions are not the point of the film or even an area of inquiry — they’re just the background.
In the foreground, then, is a reasonably enjoyable thriller, and while the cultural window dressing might lead you to believe that it’s doing something new, really, it’s just hitting the requisite beats with precision, and delivering a surfeit of gore with obvious relish. The Hunt is a solid B-movie, and any film where you get to see GLOW’s Liberty Belle have a savage knife fight with The Next Karate Kid is worth a spin, but if this is what passes for controversy in the current clime, we’ve skipped a groove somewhere along the line.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson