On August 3, 2019, a gunman walked into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas and murdered 22 people. The next day, a gunman walked into a Dayton, Ohio bar and murdered 9 people. As per usual, Hollywood scrambled to protect itself, forced to reexamine its slate of violent film and TV in response. Among the victims, The Hunt, a satirical action comedy-thriller about rich, elitist liberals hunting conservatives for sport. The film drew the ire of no higher a figure than President Donald J. Trump, who called the movie “racist at the highest level”, and said that the film “is made in order to inflame and cause chaos”.
Trump, I guess, watched the trailer and for some reason read it as praising this murder spree, which I can confirm it most certainly is not. However it was that he came to this conclusion, he successfully stopped the film’s release…..for a little while. Now The Hunt is back, just in time to have its release once again cut short, this time by a global pandemic (what a world we live in). Thankfully, it’s streaming early, so you won’t have to strap on your government-issued hazmat suit and brave the apocalypse in order to see it. You’ll have the freedom to watch the most controversial movie of 2020 from your cozy, germ-infested couch and/or mandatory isolation facility.
If you’re craving escapism to distract from the endless nightmare life has become over the past two weeks, The Hunt may, for a little while at least, fit the bill: after an initial setup of its premise, the film gets right to it with the gore and action its audience craves. The prey – a group of conservatives, rednecks, hunters, Trump-supporters, and conspiracy theorists – pick their weapon and are quickly picked off in bloody and at times rather creative ways. The camera guides us from character to character, convincing us that who we’re seeing is truly the protagonist before unceremoniously killing them off.
Rather than shake up the camera to give a sense of confusion, The Hunt allows us to see everything going down and trusts that the sense of chaos and disorientation will come from its fast pace, constantly changing protagonists, and violent content. It works – each character brings something new to the table, and every time it’s genuinely surprising when they’re killed off. I like the film’s bloody approach to action scenes, even if it at times feels like a crutch, and won’t come off as particularly gruesome for seasoned, desensitized moviegoers.
The gore is entertaining, but it gets stale quick. Thankfully, as soon as it does, we’re finally introduced to our real protagonist, Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin (from Netflix’s GLOW). Immediately upon her entrance to the story, we understand her as different from her fellow victims – she’s stoic, calculating, tough, and has notably very little interest in why she’s being attacked. She approaches the situation she’s in matter-of-factly – she’s being attacked, panicking doesn’t help, thinking fast does. Often, it’s a very reserved performance. As a result, when Gilpin breaks that calm and seems to relish in one-upping her captors, it’s all the more entertaining. Still, it’s the little touches of the performance that I like – how her face moves when she’s coming up with a plan, the different looks she gives to wordlessly explain her plans, subtle changes in her tone as she approaches what she knows is going to be a fight. Gilpin is, though lacking in-depth, is marvelously entertaining nonetheless, and she guides us through the movie even as the action wears thin.
But, just because she keeps stale action scenes entertaining doesn’t mean that she prevents all of the diminishing effects. As the film goes on it gradually becomes less creative in its violence, culminating in a particularly long and surprisingly boring fight between Gilpin and Hillary Swank, who plays the primary antagonist. In our final fight, Gilpin gets less and less time to shine, as director Craig Zobel reveals himself to be more interested in showing the act of violence than the character of that violence. It’s not as important to read the tone of the violence or the individuals involved with it, just that what we’re seeing is elaborate and gruesome. Which, in of itself, may not be a problem. More of an issue is that, as the film goes on, it digs its heels more and more into its social commentary. At the start, The Hunt can be enjoyed even if you’re not totally behind what it’s trying to say. By its end, enjoying the social commentary becomes essential to enjoying the film. I didn’t.
Even as it starts, The Hunt paints the world in broad strokes – the liberals are all pretentious, elitist hypocrites. The Conservatives are conspiracy-mongering lunatics. The movie seems to understand a lot of what makes white liberal hypocrisy funny, and the juxtaposition between the overly-sensitive “social justice warriors” ranting about white supremacy and the horrible acts of violence they commit is good for many laughs throughout. It’s not highbrow, insightful comedy, but it’s at least funny in a shallow, escapist kind of way.
Less funny are the Trump-loving prey. Much of the comedy consists of pointing and laughing at the idiot conspiracy theorists and all of the stupid ideas they have. But these jokes don’t play so well in the middle of a film that essentially justifies their world view. Can I really laugh at a conspiracy theorist spouting conspiracy theories about crisis actors after I just saw liberals literally hunt him for sport?
Moreover, what am I supposed to find even remotely insightful about the film’s sweeping generalizations, particularly when it comes to its right-leaning characters? Their dialogue feels like a mad lib game – blah blah blah <<insert right-wing insult here>>> blah blah blah. The characters sprinkle in derogatory terms like cuck, snowflake, globalist at every opportunity, oftentimes in ways that don’t make complete sense. It’s almost like The Hunt is afraid that if they don’t constantly remind us we’re watching conspiracy-mongering Trump supporters that we’ll forget.
Nor does this really jell with the main message of the film. The Hunt, despite what Trump may claim, is not a liberal movie. Nor, as I’ve seen some outlets claim, is it a conservative movie. The writers don’t seem to have much of an interest in the reality of policy. The film doesn’t take a position on the border wall, refugees, Obamacare, impeachment, or any other hot-button issue. It references some of them (one conservative prey, a right-wing podcast host, refers to Syrian refugees as crisis actors), but never delves into their substance.
Instead, The Hunt takes more interest in examining the nature of public discourse as a whole. Specifically, it takes umbrage with the “us-versus-them” mentality that has characterized this heavily partisan political era. Liberals aren’t just wrong politically, they’re elitist snobs conspiring to murder conservatives for sport. Conservatives aren’t just wrong politically, they’re racist, conspiracy-mongering hillbillies who use the n-word on Twitter.
It’s a forced message (very, very forced) and not necessarily original, but it’s certainly topical. The Hunt seems to exist in a bubble where politics is insular, where the greatest harm that comes from disagreements is reputational damage rather than devastating, long-term, large-scale harm. Tax cuts and health care is one thing, but some of the prey hunted in the film are neo-nazis, prominent homophobes, and hardened criminals. Thinking that Syrian refugees are crisis actors isn’t a problem because it lowers the state of discourse, it’s a problem because it’s factually incorrect, morally reprehensible, and leads to policies that end lives.
The Hunt doesn’t really do anything particularly controversial. They don’t take a side, they don’t go particularly far in their comedy, none of their jokes are even really that offensive unless you’re so blindly in line with your team that any joke at your expense sends you into a rage. I suppose that’s why our thin-skinned President was upset, but I can’t imagine most viewing audiences would be. While the movie’s promotional material may push it as bold and edgy, at the end of the day it’s fairly bland and doesn’t take many risks thematically.
Despite that, a part of me wishes I could recommend The Hunt since I overall enjoy the first two-thirds of it. But, by its end, I’m not really enjoying it at all, and social commentary that dominates the movie’s third act is so aggressively uninteresting that, when I watched it, I began to question whether I actually liked what I had seen up to that point. Especially considering how many theatrical releases are about to be brought directly to the small screen, I can’t think of many good reasons you should spend your time on this one. Sure, there are some creative action scenes. Sure, the main lead oozes charisma. But, that’s all meant to serve social commentary that’s misconceived and poorly executed. And on that basis, I can’t recommend it.
Review: The Hunt
The Hunt features fun action and a charismatic lead performance by Betty Gilpin but is ultimately sunk in its final act as a result of misconceived, poorly executed social commentary.
Some creative action scenes
Strong performance by Betty Gilpin
Action gets progressively worse
Social commentary sinks the last act
Characters outside the main lead are broadly written