Sensationalism is a powerful marketing tool: just ask ‘50s huckster William Castle, who marketed B-horror films on the promise of spine-tingling realism with The Tingler or “participation polls” that decided a character’s fate in Mr. Sardonicus. Nowadays, that sensationalism comes from politics rather than gimmicks: 2014’s The Interview was virtually canceled in the wake of North Korean agitation, before finally being released to a ho-hum reception. And so it goes with The Hunt, a skin-deep satire of the Trump era canceled by conservative outrage and eventually released to an America already biting its nails amid a contentious election season and the spread of coronavirus. I’d love for conservatives to see this, honestly; then they can find out how little they had to be upset about.
The premise is simple, The Most Dangerous Game by way of The Purge: twelve strangers wake up in a mysterious forest clearing, gagged and given a wooden crate filled with weapons (and, for subtext reasons, a pig named Orwell). Mere seconds in, they’re picked off one by one by bullets and arrows and grenades; they’re being hunted for sport. “It’s #Manorgate,” Ike Barinholtz’s conspiracy theorist quickly discerns — a Pizzagate-like cabal of liberal elites who hunt “deplorables” for sport in a remote forest in Vermont.
But as Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s script unfolds, and one particularly resourceful contender (Betty Gilpin) stands out from the pack, it becomes increasingly harder to figure out who exactly is in The Hunt’s satirical crosshairs. Is it the snooty, ultra-wealthy liberals, who spend their time policing pronouns and bragging about Ava Duvernay liking their IG posts? Is it the MAGA-hat-wearing ‘deplorables’ whom Zobel’s campy Evil Dead 2-style kills delight in dispatching?
The answer is clearly both, but the points are so toothless and bluntly handled (Cuse and Lindelof’s script fills both sides’ mouths with the kind of buzzwordy blather you only find on Twitter) it hardly comes across as insightful. At its best and most well-intentioned, The Hunt wants to skewer the ideological divides of a country willing to dismiss the other side as subhuman monsters deserving of death.
But as the film barrels towards its final act (its most solid and coherent, in fact), The Hunt zeroes in on class as much as anything else, which muddies its politics even more. Until then. The only subjects on display are ultra-wealthy #Resistance neoliberals and the kind of Southern-drawl “redneck deplorables” highlighted in fawning New York Times profiles — two groups of strawmen beating the stuffing out of each other. But as we see the real origins of #Manorgate, and Zobel gears up for a bloody, well-staged showdown between Gilpin and the mastermind behind it all (played by Hilary Swank), the aesthetics of wealth become the overriding factor. The problem isn’t that Swank et al. are liberals; it’s that they’re filthy rich. It’s a shame The Hunt doesn’t explore that beyond some fleeting gestures.
It doesn’t help, too, that the script is so focused on subverting audience expectations that it takes far too long to really get going. Until the focus settles on Gilpin, we’re treated to multiple “this is the real lead” fakeouts; pretty, conventionally-attractive protagonist candidates are unceremoniously killed off, and we follow another group of doomed gun nuts after that. It’s maybe twenty, twenty-five minutes before the film settles on its focus, and by then we’ve only got an hour left.
That said, The Hunt isn’t without its modest charms, especially as a Blumhouse-produced low-budget action thriller. Zobel clearly delights in the kills, and he closes in on every plucked eyeball and grenade down the pants with devilish glee. Gilpin makes for a phenomenal heroine, balancing the kind of action-heavy physicality she’s cultivated over four seasons of GLOW with a twitchy, expressive face that carries even the most darkly comic splatterfest. Brief cameos from folks like Emma Roberts, Amy Madigan and Ethan Suplee provide modestly entertaining diversions, but like most everyone besides Gilpin and maybe Swank, few of the cast last long enough to make an impression.
For something ostensibly so politically-minded, The Hunt’s satire is blunt and uneven. In an election season already fraught with divisiveness and real-world panic, it feels rather useless to just throw your hands up and say, “welp, both sides are bad!”, no matter how many coats of fake blood you splatter on it. Much like the characters in The Hunt, those who were so upset about it in concept several months ago will be shocked to find out how much of a damp squib it is now that it’s finally here.
The Hunt is on March 13 from Universal Pictures.
Clint Worthington is a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool. He also co-hosts and produces the podcasts More of a Comment, Really… and Hall of Faces for The Spool, as well as Travolta/Cage with Nathan Rabin. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and too many Criterions.