Here’s how exhaustingly stupid things have gotten: six months ago, the president of the United States made an official statement condemning a low-budget Blumhouse horror comedy and successfully blocked its release, and you probably forgot about it completely until I mentioned it just now.
The film, as you may hazily recall, was The Hunt, pitched as a red state/blue state spin on The Most Dangerous Game in which conservatives are hunted for sport by “liberal elites.” In the weeks before its intended September release, its publicity got sucked into the Fox News outrage machine, and, subsequently, bled into the foggy consciousness of our Commander in Chief. Disregarding the fact that the killers in horror movies generally aren’t the protagonists (and the fact that he hadn’t seen it, though that should go without saying), Trump took to Twitter to condemn the film’s depiction of white conservatives as “racist.” This, of course, fed back into the conservative news cycle, until Blumhouse folded and shelved the film indefinitely– or at least until it was sufficiently distanced from our collective goldfish memory. That day has now come, and the The Hunt has finally been released (with a new advertising campaign that would make William Castle proud). But does it live up– or down– to the hype?
By the numbers, the plot is pretty much as advertised. We open on a well-dressed woman (Hilary Swank) in a high-rise office, trading texts on a group chat about hunting down “deplorables” at “The Manor.” Sure enough, we next see a group of reedy, NPR-loving one-percenters on a private plane with a cargo full of sedated rednecks. When they awake, these blue-collar strangers (including Ike Barinholtz, neo-scream queen Emma Roberts, and GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) find themselves on a wooded estate with leather gags, a crate full of weapons, and, oddly, a pig wearing a shirt. Our working class heroes quickly deduce that they are the victims of “ManorGate,” an internet-infamous conspiracy in which innocent Republicans are hunted down by heartless limousine liberals. Their suspicions are confirmed, as they must be, by a hail of bullets and a series of booby traps. But is all what it seems– and will anyone survive to find out?
The Hunt was written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, whose combined CV includes such puzzle-boxy narratives as Prometheus, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Leftovers, and Lost. The Hunt falls roughly into this category, but this time the puzzle is: what point are the screenwriters trying to make? Despite the umbrage taken by the president and his followers/enablers, “Deplorables hunted by liberal elites” sounds an awful lot closer to a conservative fantasy than a liberal one; persecution complex and martyr narrative are central components to the white rage that propelled Trump (and his international counterparts) to public office. And yet, in the months since The Hunt’s original intended release date, Lindelof and Cuse masterminded HBO’s Watchmen sequel miniseries, which transcends its why-does-this-exist premise to become one of the most politically astute genre entertainments since Get Out. Surely the showrunners who brought us those eight hours of legitimately great TV have a greater political point up their sleeve?
The answer is a resounding “Eh, kinda.” As you might expect, there is a third act twist which reframes a good deal of what comes before (and which is admittedly fairly clever, enough so that the filmmakers may have done better to lead with it than set it up as a mystery in the first place). But it, and the plot as a whole, ultimately serves as set-dressing for a string of easy, “equal opportunity offender” jokes directed toward both the left and the right. The result is a film that feels so pleased with its own naughtiness that it thinks its work is already done at the outset. Most of the jokes rely on online buzzwords; some of these yield amusing results (“These are crisis actors!”), some are groanworthy (“Sorry– trigger warning”), but it’s tough to imagine much of it will hold up in a year or two. In retrospect, Blumhouse’s decision to delay the film’s release was riskier than anyone could have suspected– even a difference of a few months tests the film’s shelf life.
In both its eagerness to be a horror story of its day and its attempts to skewer both sides of the political divide, The Hunt calls to mind 2017’s American Horror Story: Cult. Like that season of FX’s venerable anthology series, The Hunt wears its topicality on its sleeve, and throws at least as much shade at well-meaning liberals as it does the terrifying nightmare state we’ve found ourselves in. But like fellow power-showrunner Ryan Murphy, there’s a certain tone-deafness in Lindelof and Cuse’s barbs, an insularity that suggests a bubble in which the Obama years never ended. In order to still view the “liberal elite” as the status quo in 2020, you either need to be fully steeped in the labyrinthine mythologies of Fox News, or so deeply enmeshed in the liberal elite that you never come into contact with anyone else. Which raises the question: who, exactly, is The Hunt for? Left-leaning audiences will likely be uneasy with the film’s catering to conservative narratives, and the ship has pretty clearly sailed on appealing to the right. That would seem to leave apolitical gorehounds– but what will they get out of a film seemingly constructed from hashtags?
All that being said, The Hunt is not without its merits– chiefly Betty Gilpin. Unlike most of her fellow captives (who, it quickly becomes clear, talk a bigger game on social media than in the face of actual adversity), Gilpin’s Crystal has an innate survival instinct, coolly appraising her pursuers and dispatching them with ruthless efficiency. We only get dribs and drabs of Crystal’s backstory, and she’s a woman of few words (perhaps not coincidentally, she’s the most politically ambiguous character by far), but Gilpin plays her with an immensely appealing mix of humanity, action, and humor. Gilpin’s performance is strong enough to propel the film to a surprisingly strong ending, with some of its sharpest dialog and an action scene deft enough to leave you reasonably satisfied as you exit the theater. Unfortunately, the film surrounding her up until that point simply isn’t up to her level.
Ultimately, the problem with The Hunt has nothing to do with ideology: it simply isn’t that funny. While the hunters have their amusing moments, as when one brags about being Twitter friends with Ava DuVernay, none are sketched with the surgical accuracy of, say, Bradley Whitford’s self-congratulatory patriarch in Get Out (“I’d have voted for Obama a third time if I could!”), or Toni Collette’s Paltrovian Instaguru in Knives Out (“I read a tweet about a New Yorker article about you!”). Even if one narrows the field to “satirical Trump-era riffs on The Most Dangerous Game,” The Hunt places a distant second to last year’s Ready or Not. While the politics of that film’s villains are never made explicit– one can easily imagine the members of the La Domas gaming dynasty cozying up to either McConnell or Pelosi at a $1000-a-plate fundraiser– it doesn’t matter: rich assholes are rich assholes, after all. Universal satire is possible– just ask Invasion of the Body Snatchers— but not through equal-time potshots or Mark Russell zingers. Like so much in the past three years, The Hunt, for all its outrage, is mostly just kind of dumb– but don’t worry, it will probably be topped by the time this goes to press.
dir. Craig Zobel
Opens in as many theaters are still open Friday, 3/13