Editor’s note: This review was originally published for the theatrical release of “The Hunt.” Universal Pictures will release it early to VOD on Friday, March 20.
“The Hunt” begins with a bunch of NPR-addicted neoliberals poaching a wild pack of Trump-worshipping MAGA types for bloodsport. Director Craig Zobel’s ultra-violent satirical update of “The Most Dangerous Game” aspires to be the movie that America needs right now; it’s a giddy slaughterhouse of mirrors that hopes to bring this country together and make it great again by reflecting the absurdity of us vs them resentment. The movie literalizes the rhetoric of a culture war that has divided the United States into “globalist cucks who run the deep state” and “redneck deplorables” with little wiggle room in between. Blumhouse’s latest blast of low-budget social commentary tries to split the difference between centrists and nihilists — between “bothsidesism” and “nosidesism”— in order to illustrate the self-destructive stupidity of mutual dehumanization.
And yet, about seven weeks before it was first supposed to open in theaters, “The Hunt” was eviscerated by the same ideology-driven polarization it was made to parody (and lament). As you may or may not remember from last fall, the current President of the United States kicked up a 24-hour shit-storm as soon as he caught wind of the film’s premise, thus leaving Universal with no choice but to reschedule the release (Trump’s command of irony is only matched by his peerless understanding of epidemiology).
On the one hand, the preemptive blowback proved the movie’s thesis in the most idiotically predictable of ways, as the world’s loudest right-wing troll looked at “The Hunt” through the narrow prism of his biases and mislabeled it a liberal fantasy sight unseen. On the other hand, that triggered response suggested that things might be just a bit too fucked for such a head-on piece of shlock to make sense of the mess we’ve made, or do anything more than draw a body chalk outline around the corpse of the idealized American citizen. Combining the droll self-satisfaction of a New Yorker cartoon with the wet gore of an Eli Roth movie, Zobel’s tense, well-crafted, and deviant grindhouse take on the national temperature has no trouble caricaturing what ails us, but even that fun combo lacks the killer instinct required to see us more clearly than we see each other.
On a scene-by-scene basis, however, “The Hunt” is one of the most unsanitized and diabolical Hollywood thrillers to come along in ages. It starts with a splash of cold water to the face — the kind of mind-numbing group text about our “ratfuck president” that will be all too recognizable to the majority of people in this country — and then gets down to business from there with a series of bloody misdirects that help obliterate the value of human life.
A dozen or so drugged red state types wake up in the middle of a field somewhere, groggy and gagged. One of them is a young blonde (Emma Roberts) sporting a sweet teal ski suit that radiates big “Urban Outfitters goes to Aspen” energy. Another is a pot-bellied porch-sitter (Wayne Duvall) with a heavy Southern accent and a potential secret. The others include an aggro Staten Island bro (Ike Barinholtz), a soap opera handsome Southern guy (“This Is Us” star Justin Hartley), and a xenophobic conspiracy theorist (Ethan Suplee, later joined by his “Blue Ruin” co-star Macon Blair) who cites a QAnon-style Reddit thread about Trump supporters being kidnapped and hunted by rich Democrats in Vermont — they call it “ManorGate.” That kind of fringe thinking seems a bit more credible when a sniper’s bullet pops someone’s head like a bloody zit. The next redshirt is disemboweled by the spikes inside a trap pit, and a few others are blown into oblivion after that. The hunt is on, and the thickening air of mistrust adds a nice layer of “Battle Royale” suspense to the mayhem that follows.
The unhinged first act builds up oodles of “no one is safe” cred before the film’s recalcitrant heroine finally emerges to challenge that idea (in a very good and silly scene that dares to imagine what a human safari designed by a Rachel Maddow superfan might look like). Her name is Crystal, she’s very capable of protecting herself, and “Glow” star Betty Gilpin plays her with almost sociopathic cool in an inspired and strange performance that splits the difference between Linda Hamilton and “No Country for Old Men” baddie Anton Chigurh.
Despite being saddled with the kind of heavy Arkansas accent that might inspire a lazy northern stranger to assume the worst, Crystal is the only character who seems confused by the whole “elites” vs “deplorables” situation at hand. It could be that she just doesn’t care — that such political tribalism seems ridiculous at these stakes — but sometimes it’s almost as if she’s almost unaware or indifferent about what’s happening in this country. Then again, she’s also the only character who seems to suspect that they might not be in “this country” at all.
What happens from there is best left unspoiled, but it’s worth noting that the screenplay (co-written by Damon Lindelof and the son of his fellow “Lost” mastermind, Nick Cuse) wastes little time in leaving its setup behind; the rules of the game are hardly even established before “The Hunt” jumps the fence and tries to flee in another direction. That restless decision offers mixed results, as a few clever set pieces can’t stop the movie’s big ideas from getting muddled as they spill over into “the real world.” The momentum slows, the focus grows scattered, and the context of this story begins to shrivel up; bland, disinterested world-building is an unexpected charge to level at a Lindelof script, but “The Hunt” is too amused with scoring easy laughs to plunge any deeper into its own premise.
A 90-minute B-movie about a comically PC “Westworld” doesn’t need the same degree of mythology as an HBO series, but the idea that “The Hunt” parodies our world doesn’t excuse it from creating one of its own. The air wheezes out of the balloon as soon as we get some face time with the hunters; as funny as it is to watch these righteous, homicidal latté-sippers cancel each other over using “the n-word” while they wait to gun down the innocent strangers they’ve kidnapped (they even make sure to abduct a black guy for “diversity”), there’s only so far you can stretch the most basic stereotypes of the political spectrum before it all feels a bit thin. Cuse and Lindelof add enough spice to the scenario to keep “The Hunt” from losing its flavor — one detail invoking Bruce Willis is particularly great — but the emphasis on these caricatures doesn’t leave Crystal much room to navigate between them.
Zobel never slouches even as “The Hunt” shrinks away from its full potential, and — despite a palpable lack of funding — he shoots the climactic fight with such an exquisite sense of tongue-in-cheek bedlam that you only wish the entire movie could have the same command of its violence. It’s the most amusing scene of its kind since the opening brawl from “Kill Bill: Volume 1,” and the ridiculousness of it all undercuts right-wing conspiracy theories by taking them at face value: Trump’s paranoid fear-mongering asks people to accept that stuff like this is really happening, and it only requires them to agree to it once. We live in a National Enquirer world now, and the crazier things get, the easier they are to believe.
But in an era where real life has become a satire of itself, satire can’t afford to be merely diagnostic; it has to muddy the waters, map out the sunken places, and work its way back up to an unshakeable place of truth. “The Hunt” only gets halfway there. It outlines a fatal divide in this country, and then spends the rest of its running time staring down into the gap. Gilpin is sensational as a woman who’s alien to America as we know it (and it’d be fun to ask a bunch of different viewers who they think Crystal would vote for in 2020, if anyone), but by the time all the cards are on the table, the most unrealistic thing about “The Hunt” is the idea that anyone watching it might learn to appreciate the humanity of those on the other side.
Universal Pictures will release “The Hunt” in theaters on Friday, March 13