“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” This phrase is commonly attributed to Phineas T. Barnum, the circus owner and renowned asshole. Despite what you’d believe from the wondrous and heartfelt The Greatest Showman, Barnum was more likely to take advantage of people knowingly than help them. This is probably why another phrase attributed to Barnum is, “a sucker is born every minute.” Today, when a lie can travel around the world thousands of time before someone discovers the ruse, we all are at risk of becoming suckers. Having now seen the Universal Pictures/Blumhouse release The Hunt, everyone has been entirely duped by the controversy surrounding it. It’s not that the film is toothless, devoid of the heavy violence implied by marketing or absent of sociopolitical messaging, it’s that the folks who got upset about the film based on the premise alone, honestly have no reason to be upset. Written by Nick Cuse (Watchmen) and Damon Lindelof (LOST) and directed by Craig Zobel (American Gods), The Hunt is a romp of a social-satire wrapped up in a stupidly violent package that takes its aim at anyone who sits too far to the left or right of any one perspective.
A group of strangers wakes up in a clearing with no memory of how they got there and with their mouths gagged. No sooner have they found a way to remove the gags do a series of shots ring out from an unknown assailant in an attempt to pick them off one-by-one. As a few manage to escape from the fenced-in area in which they woke, they begin to learn that no one is here by accident. They were chosen for a reason and it’s personal.
If you missed the controversy that’s referenced above, here’s a quick summation: the premise of The Hunt centers on a group of far right-wing Republican-types being hunted for sport by far left-wing Democratic types and this caused incredible outrage that made it from online groups to Fox News to the White House. The film’s initial marketing used keywords like “deplorable” to describe the victims and showcased rich people hunting, presumably, poor people. In short, the marketing for the film was trying to hit every single sensitive button it could find. With anger rising in a variety of areas combined with two shootings in El Paso and Dayton in August of 2019, The Hunt was pulled from its September 2019 release date for an, at the time, undetermined amount of time. (For a rundown of all the events surrounding The Hunt, check out this great article from Vulture’s Jordan Crucchiola.) Right as it was to be released on March 13th, 2020, COVID-19 was beginning to take hold in the U.S., which prompted the studio to shift to a VOD release on March 20th.
With the context set, understand going forward that all the warnings, the beatings of chests, the rending of clothes, and all the other reactions to the marketing are utterly and entirely baseless. Most amusing, the film is basically making fun of the kind of baseless attacks we inflict on each other when we succumb to feeding our baser instincts over patience and reason. Quite literally, there is not one group being targeted, but every group which takes itself to the extremes. In one corner you have the victims, individuals who comfortably extol the virtue of the second amendment (2A) despite their frustration of people using their own 2A rights against them, who refer to others as “snowflakes,” quickly proclaim the opposition as paid crisis actors, and readily share information on conspiracy theories they believe as fact. In the other corner, you have highly educated and world-traveled individuals who only see the value of what their status gives to them in online likes and connections, who readily treat others not of their class as “less than,” and who actively extol the virtues of acceptance and inclusion while trying to kill their fellow man. This isn’t a “good people on both sides” type of film, folks. If it were, The Hunt wouldn’t be able to explore the notions of extremism, lack of empathy, and the destructive nature of elitism that it so desperately attempts to set up.
That sorted, how well does it do the examination? That bit is mixed at best and a satire has to fire on all cylinders to really get its point across. Look at Blazing Saddles’s (1974) take on systemic racism, They Live’s (1988) castigation on consumerism, Starship Troopers’s (1997) exploration of military superiority, or Sorry to Bother You’s (2018) harangue of social responsibility. Each of these films seamlessly blends their respective genres with topical examinations and a tight story, making each one endlessly rewatchable with something new being found each time. While there is a certain amount of rewatchablity with The Hunt, the surprises within aren’t on any kind of Keyser Söze grand scale. The satire itself is either too subtle to catch or is literally being used to beat you over the head. For instance, when the audience first sees Betty Gilpin’s Crystal, she’s not the focus of the frame. That’s the nameless character played by Emma Roberts. Crystal ignores Roberts’s grunts for help and makes herself a compass using nothing more than the pin from a nametag, static electricity, a leaf, and a stream. With the framing, Zobel is trying to tell us not to pay attention to Crystal and to stay focused on the distraught Roberts. It’s a clever move as the film doesn’t want you to acknowledge Crystal yet, despite Gilpin being all over the marketing, and makes it so the audience has to do a bit of guesswork when we see Crystal sans-gag a few scenes later. Aspects like these highlight the fact that The Hunt is trying to talk to you, even if it’s doing so via whisper. Then there’re the less subtle moments, like when Crystal and another survivor are trying to hide out on a train and the survivor, played by a near unrecognizable Ethan Suplee (Mallrats), starts railing at the refugees they find as being fake and trying to take advantage of the United States. His rant is so over the top that it’s easy to dismiss, if you don’t agree with the ideology, and ignore. Similarly, upon finding out the reasoning for the hunt in the first place, it’s quite easy to ridicule the thinking as too overly villainous and petty. Although, considering the public displays of violence going on around the world right now to shift a peaceful protest to something riotous, the line between what’s ridiculous and what’s believable is growing blurrier by the moment.
In terms of the cast, this film belongs to Gilpin. She controls every scene, commanding our attention, often with something as small and simple as a change in facial expression. You can see the exasperation, the annoyance, the exhaustion, and a million other little things Gilpin communicates with incredible ease. She is truly a master of her physicality, is absolutely one with her character, and is aware of where her character is psychologically at every moment. Gilpin may be surrounded by actors of whom most audiences are more likely to recognize than know by name — Sturgill Simpon (Queen & Slim), Kate Nowlin (Young Adult), Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams), Wayne Duvall (The Kitchen), and Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad) — and a few audiences will recognize immediately — Roberts, Justin Hartley (This Is Us), Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and, of course, Hillary Swank (Logan Lucky) — but this is entirely Gilpin’s show. The rest are just fodder for the gore machine and you’ll be absolutely giddy to watch them all go through it.
If isn’t your first visit to The Hunt, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that there are three bonus features included on the home release which cover everything from the design of the film’s narrative to the make-up and fx of the death scenes to a really interesting breakdown of the fight between Crystal and Swank’s Athena. Each one has bits from principle cast and crew, along with the respective experts on the topic (like stunt coordinator Heidi Moneymaker when discussing the big fight), creating a chance for the audience to get a sense of just how much work went into these key elements of the film. The downside is that each of them are brief. “Death Scene Breakdowns” and “Athena Vs Crystal” are about as long combined as “Crafting The Hunt,” which clocks out around five minutes. Considering the lengthy journey to get from page to screen, expanding on the home viewing options to dig into the materials seems like a no-brainer. In fact, the lack of commentary from the cast, writers, or director seems like an absolute missed opportunity to enable whomever picks up The Hunt to get a clear understanding of the film’s intent. Perhaps this is a bit of “let the art speak for itself,”, but if Joker can get an audio commentary from director Todd Phillips, why can’t The Hunt get one from Zobel?
When it all comes down to it, The Hunt is a fun flick where assholes get their comeuppance in a variety of ways. In this way, The Hunt is truly no different than any other horror flick. The difference here is that the people who make up this film are truly the worst of all of us. That’s the bit that got lost in all the marketing. The ones who believe in PizzaGate so badly that someone is willing to run in, heavily armed, to a pizza parlor to save children they believe are in danger. Is it righteous to protect the most vulnerable? Yes. Was there a basement in the one-floor building? Nope. But this also includes the ones who believe in their virtue so greatly that they’ll travel the world to try to make it better, all while looking down on the communities and cultures that they engage with. These are truly the worst of all of us, the ones who hold to their beliefs so strongly that they can’t change in the face of irrefutable evidence. That’s who came for strangers and that’s who Crystal must survive. The real lesson, if there is one to be taken by Cuse, Lindelof, and Zobel: don’t be an asshole and we’ll all be aces.
The Hunt Bonus Features
- Crafting The Hunt (5:04)
- Death Scene Breakdowns – The Hunt (2:36)
- Athena Vs Crystal: Hunter or Hunted? (2:43)
Available on VOD beginning March 20th, 2020.
Available on digital beginning May 26th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning June 9th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.