On August 3rd, 2019, a gunman killed 22 people in an El Paso Walmart with a semiautomatic rifle after posting a manifesto online decrying a “Hispanic invasion.” Hours later, a shooter killed nine people with an AR-15-style semiautomatic pistol at a bar in Dayton, Ohio. The shootings reignited the gun-control debate in America, as well as criticisms of President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
A few days later, the Hollywood Reporter ran a story about ESPN pulling ads for an upcoming film titled The Hunt that, according to a copy of the script obtained by THR, centered around liberal elites hunting “deplorables” for sport. Fox News seized on the opportunity to blame the left for the climate that led to the shootings, bashing the “demented and evil” movie in a story posted to its website. “It’s remarkable to me that the left blames Donald Trump’s rhetoric for violence, then literally spends millions to normalize the killing of people based on politics,” Tim Young, a political satirist, told the network.
No one in the media had actually seen the film, an over-the-top satire playing up stereotypes about both sides of the political divide. But reality is an afterthought when there’s an agenda to push. The story was soon picked up by Laura Ingraham, who said on her highly rated Fox News show thatThe Hunt “could inspire more mass shootings.” Then Trump weighed in. “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos,” the president tweeted. “They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!”
One day later, on August 10th, Universal announced it was canceling the film’s September 27th release, stating that “now is not the right time.”
“I felt like I was sucked into this media-assumption vortex with this film that is discussed inside the narrative of the film,” says director Craig Zobel, who describes seeing Trump tweet about his first big-studio directorial effort as an “out-of-body” experience. “The whole thing was really meta, in a way.”
Zobel had no idea the film would be controversial. Nor did writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse. Nor did producer Jason Blum, whose company, Blumhouse, has made its name on horror-thriller hits like The Purge franchise and Get Out. The script “checked almost every box” of what Blum looks for in a film, he says: “I thought it was edgy and subversive and super entertaining and visceral. The most frustrating thing for me was that everyone had all these opinions having not seen the movie.”
Inspired by the 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, The Hunt does indeed center around liberal elites who kidnap a group of conservatives, release them on sprawling estate, and then hunt them for sport. But the film’s protagonist (and only real sympathetic character) is Crystal, a Southern, more-or-less politically neutral veteran whom the liberal hunters try and fail repeatedly to bag. Her conservative cohort spout one-liners about the Second Amendment and Sean Hannity, while the elites hunting them are portrayed as detestable, holier-than-thou social-justice warriors whose primary concern is looking the part. “Ava DuVernay just like one of my posts!” one exclaims minutes before being ambushed by Crystal, played by a steely Betty Gilpin (GLOW). If any of the Fox News faithful circling the wagons to cancel The Hunt last August had actually seen it, they would have been cheering her on as she maims her way to a showdown with Athena, the liberal ringleader played by Hilary Swank.
Lindelof and Cuse penned the script with Blumhouse in mind because of the success the company has had making violent thrillers threaded with subversive social commentary — most notably Get Out, the 2017 meet-the-parents nightmare that won Jordan Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. While that movie is an incisive appraisal of racism in America, Lindelof describes The Hunt as “cautionary tale” for what can happen when Trump-era political radicalization gets out of hand, on both ends of the spectrum. Rather than reinforce the beliefs of liberal or conservative America, it seeks to turn a mirror on both sides by placing the rote, well-trod talking points of the left and the right in the context of visceral (read: really, really gory) life-or-death urgency. It’s cannily effective — left-leaning viewersmay catch themselves rooting for the villain, Athena, at the end, their politics reflexively overriding 90 minutes’ worth of character development.
Lindelof had a similar experience while watching Get Out. As a white person, he says, he found himself wanting Allison Williams’ Rose, the traitorous girlfriend who brings her black boyfriends home to be murdered, “to be good.” When he mentioned this to Peele, the director told him he wasn’t alone. “He said that every time he saw the movie screened, though there’s a moment where Daniel Kaluuya finds the photographs of men of color that Allison Williams brought into her family, which is supposed to be the reveal that she’s bad, the audience still gasped five minutes later when she revealed the car key in her hand [that she refused to give him to escape]. It’s all the white people who were gasping, because they still wanted her to be good. It makes you wonder who your avatar is in the movie.”
Lindelof says the idea for The Hunt came out of a fascination with the nature of conspiracy theories, which led him and Cuse to try to think of one so ridiculous that no one would believe it. But spend a few minutes reading about QAnon — whose followers believe, for example, that Tom Hanks and Barack Obama are part of a pedophile ring that eats babies — and you’ll realize there’s no such thing. Similarly, the filmmakers learned there’s no such thing as a piece of satire so blunt that it can’t be taken seriously. Maybe they should have known. There are countless examples of Americans, including politicians, posting Onion articles to their social media feeds under the assumption they’re real. In a political climate in which both sides are desperate to capitalize on the slightest toehold to advance their case, it’s not shocking that conservatives didn’t bother to take deep breath and look for the nuance in the news of a “Hollywood blockbuster,” as that first Fox News article described it, about liberals hunting #MAGA folk for sport.
“In my brain, it was just such a clear satire,” says Lindelof, who calls himself “incredibly naive” for not anticipating that his film’s subject matter could be co-opted for political gain. “If you had sat me down and asked me about the possibility that this series of events would lead to the movie getting canceled, I would have said that’s as ridiculous as the premise of the movie. The president is not going to tweet about the movie. But then it happened.”
Though the spread of the coronavirus is likely to hurt The Hunt at the box office, at one point the re-release seemed like it could have been a blessing in disguise. Universal was able to spin its marketing around the film’s cancellation last August, with a new trailer that labeled it the “most talked-about movie of the year.” The debate over its propriety led to far more press than the film would have received if it hadn’t gotten caught up in that “media-assumption vortex,” as Zobel put it, late last summer.
“In the intervening time I think the points the film makes got even stronger by virtue of what happened,” Zobel says. “As a director you make a movie because you want people to see it, and because you have something to say. Now I think what the film says may be cast in even more sharp relief and may be more interesting. That’s a good thing.”
Blum, on the other hand, isn’t so sure about the supposed benefits of a media firestorm. “If I had to do it all over again,” he says, “I would much prefer no controversy.”