This review contains mild spoilers.
The Hunt is on! It’s hard to ignore the controversy that’s surrounded Craig Zobel’s satirical, action-horror. Coming six months later than planned, and with the weight of expectations, the film that triggered Trump has finally made it to the big screen. However, I suspect I won’t be alone in leaving the cinema and asking “was that it?” I’m delighted it got a cinema release at all, rather than staying shelved indefinitely or showing up straight to streaming.
You’ll all know the premise by now. The sort of wealthy, liberal elites conservative conspiracy theorists believe run the world go to a private mansion in the middle of nowhere to hunt the ultimate game: humans. It’s part of a plot known as “Manorgate”. The Hunted: twelve of the most “deplorable” voters for the “rat-fucker and chief”, who wake up gagged and confused in a field. Then, moments later, the same lefties who have a crisis of conscience about their own white skin start shooting at them for sport. Among the hunted is Crystal (Gilpin): an a-political, ex-military badass who doesn’t care why she’s there as much as when she can smoke her next cigarette. Joined by a rabid, paranoid podcaster (Suplee) she sets out to find a way back home, and kill whoever put them there.
It’s a neat concept and one that should work on paper. American politics, particularly online, is in an increasingly volatile place right now, which makes it more than suitable subject matter for a scary movie. But like Black Christmas which paid little more than lip-service to contemporary issues, its simplistic stereotypes, shallow storytelling and lazy “both sides are crazy” posturing means The Hunt is simultaneously too obnoxious and too reserved. Think about an angry, contrarian teenager who just saw their first episode of South Park, and you’re almost there. Parts like the pointless Animal Farm motif embody its “that’ll do pig” attitude. The script (coming courtesy of the usually reliable Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof) treats its abundance of real-world shorthand as a reason not to build its own. Hence basic questions about how the secret organisation operate go unanswered, and a late attempt to personalise the conflict falls flat. I appreciate it’s a satire, so practicalities and motivations don’t need to be meticulous. Though, it also ought to be plausible in its own universe. None of this would matter so much if the characters were well written or potentially subverted out expectations as per the much more pointed (and also Blum produced) Get Out. But they’re not. Instead, The Hunt utilises the usual “globalist cucks” vs “redneck deplorables” caricatures. Granted, the exaggerated style keeps it timely. But aside from undermining the movie’s own message for unity, it means we struggle to warm to any of the victims since we don’t get to know them beyond a surface level. Given the perpetrators are similarly loathsome, it feels as if there’s no reason to care about anything that happens.
The exception is Crystal, who reluctantly settles into the part of our protagonist. Betty Gilpin excels in the role, with her understated performance being by far the most reliably funny of the film. However, the decision to focus on someone almost sociopathically cold, and about whom we learn almost nothing, works against its tension. By keeping viewers at an emotional distance, and making her blasé manner part of the joke, The Hunt undersells the graveness of its own situation. Crystal watches like of half a double act, or a supporting character in need of a lead. In the absence of another developed character to contrast with, she more often than not works against the energy of a scene and is not an engaging avatar for the audience. I suspect she is supposed to reflect an audience that’s become increasingly weary with political tribalism, which is maybe a smart idea, but her cool exterior makes the baddies seem toothless. Comparisons to Ready Or Not maybe crude, as the two films are stylistically very different. Though something that it did, which The Hunt fails at, was revel in the ridiculousness of its premise without compromising the dramatics. It’s cast of buffoonish hunters were also far more endearing than The Hunt’s.
If there’s a saving grace to The Hunt, it’s that a couple of the action scenes are well constructed, even if you won’t necessarily care about the outcomes. For instance, the titular onslaught opens with an impressive set piece that watches like a concerto of organised chaos. Bullets, arrows and grenades fly in all directions, bodies get impaled, and we don’t know who, if anyone, is going to survive. It has a level of peril and energy about it that is absent for much of the running time. The closing melee, which is two characters in hand to hand combat, is also acutely choreographed with its everything, including the kitchen sink, approach packing a vicious punch. There are also nuggets of humour peppered throughout, with gags about crisis actors, and a fantastic telling of the tortoise and the hare story being standouts. Still, the film simply isn’t funny or bombastic enough to compensate for failures in its own basic storytelling. It’s a shame, as I really wanted to like it. Horror has never shied away from upsetting people and has historically been a rich arena in which to explore socio-political issues. I liked the idea of seeing something with a hint of mischief, and even danger. I also expect there’s a great American movie to be made about the current “culture wars”. However, The Hunt has neither the intelligence nor the entertainment value to be that movie. Still, maybe in failing to deliver on so many fronts it will heal the divide by equally annoying people on either side. In that respect, even if it’s not the film we want, or even enjoy, it could be the one we need.