Although the circumstances were, to put it lightly, less than ideal, maybe Universal withdrawing The Hunt from release last September was a good thing. After all, it gave them the opportunity to draw from the great exploitation hucksters of the past and declare it “the film they don’t want you to see!” once the news cycle had turned over enough times that studio prognosticators declared it safe for release. And who are “they?” Presumably, the right-wing media and Republican politicians — including Donald Trump, who used it as a springboard to rant about “Liberal Hollywood elites” — who were offended by The Hunt‘s premise. But the film itself is harder on those liberal elites than it is on the “deplorables” (which they would have known if they had actually seen it before making claims about it). And that’s actually perfect for The Hunt, a movie that jumps on buzzwords like “canceled” like a marathoner for a cup of water, but never coalesces into a coherent statement about, well, anything; aspiring for satire but largely feels more like a thought experiment.
Protests against The Hunt were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s tone and plot. Yes, it’s about a group of liberal one-percenters who set up an elaborate shooting range called “The Manor” where they pick off conservatives with long-range rifles, booby traps, and explosives while snickering and sipping obscenely expensive champagne. But every riff on The Most Dangerous Game, of which The Hunt is, shares at least one thing in common: The hunters are the bad guys. However, that’s not to say this is a significantly more violent version of a PureFlix movie. The Hunt stubbornly insists on engaging in “both sides” rhetoric, mocking both political correctness and InfoWars-style conspiracy thought while maintaining that the audience, through the vehicle of final girl Crystal (Betty Gilpin), are the smart ones staying above the sheep-like tantrums. (For what it’s worth, the film saves it most pointed jabs for the liberals. But they are hunting human beings for sport, so fair play, we suppose.) But at the same time, no one outside of Gilpin’s character is supposed to be “real” because the point of the film is that political identities have sanded down our nuances and idiosyncrasies to render us into caricatures. Damon Lindelof and Nice Cuse’s screenplay seemingly takes a look at our political moment and decides, “If you guys hate each other so much without even understanding each other as individuals, why don’t you just kill each other Battle Royale style?”
The problem with that observation is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. Following a pair of establishing scenes featuring Hilary Swank and Glenn Howerton, we cut to black. Then we open onto the familiar face of Emma Roberts (credited playing “Yoga Pants”), gagged with a silicone bit and dazedly wandering onto a grassy field. There, she and her fellow victims are confronted with a large wooden crate containing a selection of heavy-duty firepower and, more puzzlingly, a pig in a T-shirt. We don’t have much time to dwell on the pig because shortly thereafter bullets start flying and Roberts’ head explodes and splatters like a sprinkler of human blood. The film will cycle through several more protagonists before settling on Crystal, a surprisingly funny touch that’s ultimately sharper than any of the political commentary in Lindelof and Cuse’s script.
The violence in The Hunt is gory and often creative, with a penchant for unconventional weaponry that also recalls Battle Royale (with other influences worn proudly, including a kitchen fight scene that feels clearly inspired by Kill Bill). Director Craig Zobel keeps the action legible and the plot moving at a brisk and entertainable pace, and as an action-horror hybrid, it works. And although her killing-machine bona fides remain shaky, Gilpin makes for an intelligent and expressive final girl. In a film that otherwise violently rejects subtly, her face conveys the clever internal calculations before the explosive bursts of savagery, letting the audience in on a secret that’s, again, more engaging than any number of jokes about “crisis babies” and cultural appropriation.
As for the film’s much pushed political content, calling it a “satire,” as said before, is perhaps overly generous. Instead, it pours on some intolerable, prompt references whose targets vary by the scene, with a quick trip to a refugee camp at one point just to underline the film’s self-satisfied belief in its own edginess. The Hunt does attempt to pull back and make a larger point later in the narrative, but this point is hopelessly confused; it may have something to do with the common refrain that liberals are “driving” people to vote for Trump with their oppressive political correctness, but even that’s probably a stretch. And so, for all the hype and free publicity, in the end The Hunt is simply one of those whiz-bang genre flicks where you can comfortably fast-forward through the dialogue scenes. In a slew of rough, on-the-nose references and a broad, blurry viewpoint, The Hunt‘s self-satisfied edge ultimately renders it rather dull.