A riff on The Most Dangerous Game‘s well-worn premise, the Blumhouse blockbuster-to-be The Hunt was supposed to be just another project coming off a prolific production company’s assembly line, a tweaked take on class warfare that was part tongue-in-cheek transgressiveness and part tongue-ripped-from-mouth shock treatment. Then word got out that the story involved liberal elites preying on just folks for sport, a few politically charged phrases were flagged from a leaked script, the President weighed in and, well… as with most things involving our current POTUS, things went south in record time. A 2019 fall release was pulled. A thousand think pieces were penned. What started as a modest horror movie was somehow deemed a threat to the well-being of our nation, and began to gather dust on a shelf.
Smash-cut to March 2020, when all cultural rifts between our fellow Americans have been miraculously healed, and once more, The Hunt is on. “The most talked about movie of the year… is one nobody’s seen yet,” declares the trailer — really, you gotta love a good old-fashioned ballyhoo marketing move. Whether it turns out to be the most talked-about movie of the year is anyone’s guess, but given producer Jason Blum’s impressive track record at the box office, a whole bunch of people will have seen it by the end of this weekend. They’ll confirm that The Hunt is neither a harbinger of Western civilization’s end nor quite the Swiftian satire its creators want it to be. It’s simply a better-than-decent B-movie, the kind that takes pride in its sick kills and throws a lot of punches that only occasionally connect. Any expectations that it’s a Grand Guignol state-of-the-nation regarding Trump’s America should be banished ASAP. It’s more like spending 90 minutes trolling around Twitter’s America.
Yes, the story does revolve around coastal elites (who are all caricatures and/or assholes) who pay top dollar to sip champagne on private jets, debate the pitfalls of white privilege, and hunt flyover-state residents (who are mostly caricatures and/or assholes) for the thrill of it. Yes, someone refers to an unnamed president as “our ratfucker-in-chief,” and texts about using “deplorables” as target practice; later, other characters will bemoan the “globalist cucks who run the deep state” and get excited over the prospect of “being on Hannity like the Jew boys who fucked Nixon.” (See, there’s enough bad behavior to go around for everybody!) Yes, a lot of people who are instantly coded as “real Americans” hailing from the rural South to Staten Island wake up in a field, with black mouth-bits attached to their faces, sprinting toward a wooden box filled with weapons. They’re then systematically picked off via sniper rifles, arrows, spiked pits, landmines, and poisoned powdered donuts. You’ll recognize a few of the faces among the working-class prey, though that’s no guarantee they’ll last past the second reel.
But whether The Hunt‘s players are seen through the lens of a MAGA-ifying glass or come wrapped up in an NPR tote bag, they’re still caricatures, sketched in the broadest and most basic strokes imaginable. There are only two people you need to pay attention to, really. The first is Athena (Hilary Swank), a corporate shark in business-casual slacks who appears to be the brains behind this whole kill-the-poor shebang. She’s Type-A elitist entitlement personified, the kind of go-getter who impulsively lifts weights during a planning meeting and thinks nothing of using an $1,100 stiletto heel as a weapon. Swank plays her like the amped-up Hogarth portrait that she is.
The second is Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a military veteran from Mississippi who served in Afghanistan; when we meet her, she’s calmly fashioning a compass out of a pin and static electricity from her hair. While everyone around her is freaking out, Crystal is pure grace under pressure. The lady is our resident skeptic, lethal with a firearm, and one who knows her Animal Farm references. She’s the smartest person in the room, on the battlefield, in the movie. The deck is stacked in her favor from the get-go, clearly, yet the GLOW actor still adds a world-weariness — and world-wariness — to the character that serves as a welcome respite from all of the slack-jawed and mealy-mouthed yahoos populating the movie. Thanks to Gilpin, she’s both an action heroine and the closest thing to a three-dimensional person we’ve got here.
Of course these two are going to end up tussling in a chic kitchen, Kill Bill-style, hashing out scenes from the class struggle one breakable piece of furniture at a time. It’s admittedly a blast, with director Crag Zobel (Compliance, the highly underrated Z for Zachariah) staging the sequence with anarchic glee. You have to endure a lot to get to that knockdown tête-à-tête, however. The director and the screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have all bent over backwards to make sure viewers can’t necessarily get a bead on a political stance here (though making your film’s hero a working-class Southern female is its own statement). It’s the sort of movie that mocks the right and the left’s paranoia about each other, while simultaneously playing to their greatest fears. Both gun nuts and gun-control advocates will find things to glom onto. Ditto conspiracy theorists and those who think everyone between California and New York is one podcast away from turning into Alex Jones. There are so many straw-man arguments happening at once that it all becomes combustible cacophony minus a real contextual spark. The only thing more deadly here than the bullets are the bullet points flying at you so fast, so furiously.
In the end, The Hunt‘s creators have delivered something that doesn’t quite gel as a satire but excels as an exploitation flick — the more it leans in to Gilpin’s lean, mean killing machine and away from the over-the-top attempts to parrot Our Totally Fucked-Up Discourse, the better it works. It didn’t deserve to incur the president’s wrath, naturally, nor does it necessarily court controversy for its own sake. It’s simply a movie that saw an opportunity, accidentally got caught up in bigger circumstances because someone needed to distract his constituency, had unrealistic expectations foisted on it, and then milked its violent sensationalism for all it was worth. What could be more American than that?