Twelve random “regular” people find themselves being hunted by vengeful wealthy sociopaths in The Hunt, starring GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin and Oscar-winner Hilary Swank. Delayed since last fall in the wake of mass shootings, the film is being touted as a daring, politically incorrect edgy satire. It’s not. It’s just a predictably pointless, simplistic premise with all the subtle nuance of a cudgel to the side of the head, pretending that it has something relevant to say about “cancel culture” and our current hyper-polarized partisan divide.
Written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (whose father Carlton shared showrunner duties with Lindelof on LOST), The Hunt is about 12 strangers who wake up in a clearing with no idea where they are or how they got there. They soon discover they are “prey” at an exclusive resort called The Manor, where the uber-wealthy come to hunt human beings—although Hilary Swank’s high-end executive (who masterminded the whole thing) scoffs that they should hardly be considered “beings.” But one of the targets, Gilpin’s Crystal, fights back, and proves to be a formidable adversary.
As I pointed out when the first trailer dropped, it’s not a particularly new idea, since Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” was first published in 1924 and has spawned countless film and television interpretations of the basic concept over the ensuing decades. The twist in this case is that the hunted are all red state “deplorables,” and the hunters are “liberal elites”—albeit of the super-entitled uber-wealthy variety.
Naturally, Fox News had a field day with the film’s storyline. It’s essentially trolling Fox’s core audience, after all, although the premise is frankly just as offensive to folks on the opposite end of the political spectrum (fair and balanced!). Sometimes that kind of controversy can be good marketing for a strong opening weekend. But then Universal decided to pull the film’s originally scheduled release in the wake of three US mass shootings that claimed the lives of more than 30 people. That was the right decision.
Even though the premise, and that original trailer, seemed pretty dubious, I was willing to give Lindelof and Cuse the benefit of the doubt and wait to see the film before rendering judgment. If anyone could set up expectations and then toss in a jaw-dropping twist, it’s those two. So I’m actually quite peeved that The Hunt is so unrelentingly predictable and pedestrian. How Lindelof and Cuse could go from something as multi-faceted and sublime as Watchmen to this godawful mess is a the head-scratcher.
The most recent trailer (embedded above) has been recut to hint that The Hunt isn’t really about rich liberals literally killing conservative folks, but that’s disingenuous. Yes, the premise really is that dumb and obvious. There are no fully-formed characters, just caricatures; half of the characters aren’t even named, they’re just listed in the credits as “Yoga Pants,” “Trucker,” “Staten Island,” or “Crisis Mike,” to name a few. As for the motivation of the so-called “liberals,” we learn that the notion of the Hunt started out as a Q-Anon-like Internet conspiracy.
(Warning: Major spoilers below the gallery.)
The “liberal” group in question, while making fun of the idiocy of an unnamed president (*cough* Trump *cough*), joke in a group text thread about killing a few “deplorables” in an upcoming hunt on “the Manor.” When one person’s phone is hacked, the texts go public and a certain segment of gullible right-wing Internet denizens thinks it’s real. Everyone on that thread is summarily fired to preserve the “optics” of their respective corporations. Orchestrating a real “hunt” that targets those who bought into and spread the rumor is their revenge.
This bone-headed premise might conceivably work in the context of a five-minute comedy sketch, except the ham-fisted script isn’t particularly sharp or funny, regardless of which group it’s targeting with the jibes. Case in point: there’s a scene where Ma (Amy Madigan) and Pop (Reed Birney), posing as rural gas station owners, argue about whether “Black” or “African-American” is the more politically correct terminology for people of color as they haul the bodies of the targets they’ve just slaughtered into the back of the store. Hahaha. Get it? That’s about as subtle as the purported “humor” gets.
The sole exception to all of this is Crystal, and that’s largely due to an extraordinary performance by Gilpin—the one bright light in this otherwise dankly distasteful film. (The gifted Swank is utterly wasted in her role as Athena.) It’s also an underdeveloped part, but Gilpin’s expressive face and mannerisms infuse her bare outline of a character with a bit of much-needed depth. She’s a cipher from the start, although we gradually learn she’s a veteran who saw combat in Afghanistan, which certainly explains her mastery of weaponry and skill at hand-to-hand combat—and matter-of-fact ruthlessness at killing those hunting her, like a Mississippi John Wick. I suspect a touch of PTSD might be a factor.
What’s the point?
When Crystal finally faces Athena in the inevitable final confrontation, the latter is surprised to learn that Crystal can recognize the music of Beethoven and has read (and understood) George Orwell’s Animal Farm. So what is the implicit message here? That Crystal deserves to live because she has some cultural refinements, while her fellow “deplorables” deserved to die? I’m sure that wasn’t Lindelof and Cuse’s intent, but it is a natural inference to make, especially when we learn that Crystal’s kidnapping was actually a case of mistaken identity. She’s not one of the much-maligned “deplorables” who were targeted because of their online embracing of a weird conspiracy theory.
Perhaps there’s supposed to be some kind of nihilistic message in all of this, but if so, it’s garbled and muddled to such a degree as to be meaningless. At one point Crystal tells one of the other survivors a story her mother used to tell her, about the jackrabbit and the box turtle. It’s a version of the tortoise and the hare, with an ugly twist. After the cocky jackrabbit loses to the box turtle because he took a nap mid-race, he goes to the box turtle’s house with a hammer, kills the turtle’s family in front of him, and then kills the box turtle, before gobbling up their dinner amid their smashed bodies—”because the jackrabbit always wins.” Her fellow survivor, confused, asks if they are the jackrabbit or the box turtle. Crystal doesn’t answer. That’s pretty much the predicament of anyone looking for deeper meaning in this film.
The Hunt is doubly disappointing because, in the right hands, this could have been a challenging, thought-provoking take on a well-established literary classic. The studio’s marketing is trumpeting this as the most controversial movie of 2019 that nobody has yet seen, hinting at playing the “censorship card” and urging audiences to decide for themselves. Well, I’m hardly squeamish about challenging films that push the boundaries of socially acceptable mores, which puts me very much in the target audience for this film. But it’s actually hard to pull off such a feat, and sadly, The Hunt fails on almost every level.
The Hunt is currently playing in theaters, should you decide to take a break from “social distancing.” But frankly, it deserves to bomb at the box office.
Listing image by Universal Pictures