In hindsight, perhaps all of the controversy for Universal and Blumhouse’s The Hunt is a godsend. The politically oriented horror film was notoriously scheduled for a release last fall, but was shelved after it caught the attention of politicos, including President Donald Trump, who took issue (sight unseen, of course) with the film’s premise of Liberals hunting Conservatives. The delay prompted conversations about censorship, about the need for art that critically tackles culture, and even drew comparisons to the media-blaming that followed in the wake of Columbine back in the early 2000s.
The sad reality, however, is that The Hunt is unworthy of these conversations because it is neither controversial, nor topical. It’s not about much of anything, actually, which is the film’s greatest failure. It’s a toothless satire that isn’t funny because it is too obvious. It’s a Red vs Blue political thriller that has no insight into politics because it is too afraid to pick a side, preferring instead to normalize everything and everyone as equally stupid and out of touch.
In their effort to put a mirror up to contemporary America, screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof resort to lazy stereotypes, distilling characters into familiar tropes whose dialogue and political beliefs consist of simple, digestible buzzwords and phrases. Political correctness is presented as equal to bigotry; snowflakes are as dangerous as rednecks. The Hunt’s basic treatise is that everyone is equally wrong and out of touch. The joke is that we’re all morons who would rather kill each other than listen to a dissenting opinion, but it’s a one-note joke stretched to 89 minutes. The realization that there’s no bite or scathing critique in this politically incendiary premise is the film’s ultimate downfall.
Sans controversy, what’s left? Well, thankfully The Hunt does have one ace up its sleeve and her name is Betty Gilpin. The secret weapon of Netflix’s GLOW finally gets a starring role and while the film surrounding her is unworthy of her talent, Gilpin makes the most of an underwritten role with some shrewd and fascinating acting choices that makes Crystal an incredibly watchable character.
Alas, she’s barely present in the first act, which begins in fits and starts as Cuse and Lindelof awkwardly establish the film’s premise while attempting to subvert audience expectations. The Hunt literally opens on an interminable close-up of a text chain on a phone as a series of people joke about how they will shortly take out their ire on “deplorables” during a hunt at the Manor. This segue ways into a brief action sequence aboard a plane as a drugged man stumbles into the cabin and must be subdued by a group of privileged assholes, including an authoritative woman who is only shot from behind (Swank’s Athena, who barely appears and whose face isn’t shown until the third act).
Initially the narrative follows a drugged woman (Emma Roberts) who awakens in the woods with a locked gag in her mouth. Others are quickly revealed, including This Is Us’ Justin Hartley, The Butterfly Effect’s Ethan Suplee and The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz. They crowd around a large crate in the center of an empty field, which is revealed to contain guns and a live pig dressed in human clothes. Moments later shots ring out and the body count begins to climb as the beleaguered victims attempt to fight back and/or flee.
This is the formula that Cuse and Lindelof settle on for most of the film, which gives The Hunt a strangely episodic feel. A character runs to a new location (gas station, train, etc), encounters violence, dies and then a new character is introduced to take their place. “Character” as a term should be applied loosely: aside from Gilpin’s Crystal, names are fleetingly referenced and there’s no character development or arcs to speak of.
It takes some time to reveal the politicized premise that rich, elite, politically correct Democrats are hunting ignorant, stupid, “regular people” Republicans. It should be noted that the film spends virtually no time with the Democrats, which renders both the conflict and characters’ repeated enquiry about the rationale for Manor-Gate (as the hunt is called) curiously bland. The explanation, much like the film, plays it both ways: throughout fully two-thirds of the film Crystal’s only interest is survival…until she and Athena finally meet up to battle, when the revelation about why Crystal was selected suddenly becomes all-encompassing. The fact that the rationale includes Lindelof’s patented time-twisty shenanigans is simultaneously groan-worthy and hilariously stupid.
Despite all of these drawbacks, there is some fun to be had in The Hunt. Zobel knows how to shoot action, and there is some decent gore, including an early death with a darkly comedic bent that the film would have benefitted from more of. And while the second act involving a refugee camp and “crisis actors” drags, this is where Gilpin truly begins to shine (her facial expressions are comic gold, as is her deadpan line delivery). Thankfully the film ends on a high note with a climactic sequence that that deftly blends action and comedy (an outside sequence that is filmed in a long-take, slow pan from the inside utilizes framing and blocking to great effect).
The climax also very clearly reinforces how criminally underutilized Swank is in the film. The Oscar winner injects a burst of adrenaline and surprising comedy to the proceedings and, like Gilpin, her zingers are legitimately great. The Hunt is replete with great, likeable character actors, but it rarely, if ever, uses them to its own advantage.
Ultimately, Gilpin, Swank and Zobel’s action can only do so much to save Cuse and Lindelof’s toothless script. The film’s specific brand of political satire relies on references to Animal Farm, which is particularly hard to swallow given that its inclusion is so heavy handed that it evokes YA movies where a film’s themes are explicitly addressed in English class.
The Hunt thinks it is a clever and pointed film about contemporary America, but in reality, it’s little more than a pig dressed up in human clothes.
The Hunt opens in theatres March 13.