Although the circumstances were, to put it mildly, less than ideal, maybe Universal withdrawing The Hunt from release last September was a good thing. After all, it gave them the opportunity to draw from the great exploitation hucksters of the past and declare it “the film they don’t want you to see!” once the news cycle had turned over enough times that studio prognosticators declared it safe for release. And who are “they?” Presumably, the right-wing commentators and Republican politicians—including Donald Trump, who used it as a springboard to rant about “Liberal Hollywood elites”—who were offended by The Hunt’s premise. But the film itself is harder on those liberal elites than it is on the “deplorables.” And that’s actually perfect for The Hunt, a movie that jumps on buzzwords like “canceled” like a hungry dog on a juicy steak, but never coalesces into a coherent statement about, well, anything.
Protests against The Hunt were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s tone and plot. Yes, it’s about a group of liberal one-percenters who set up an elaborate shooting range called “The Manor” where they pick off conservatives with long-range sniper rifles while snickering and sipping obscenely expensive champagne. But every riff on The Most Dangerous Game, of which The Hunt is one, shares at least one thing in common: The hunters are the bad guys. That’s not to say this is a significantly more violent version of a PureFlix movie, however (although Unplanned was pretty gory). The Hunt stubbornly insists on engaging in South Park-style “both sides” rhetoric, mocking both political correctness and InfoWars-style conspiracy thought while maintaining that the audience, through the vehicle of final girl Crystal (Betty Gilpin), are the smart ones for staying above the sheeplike fray. For what it’s worth, the film saves its most pointed barbs for the liberals. But they are hunting human beings for sport, so fair play, we suppose.
At first, it seems we’re in for an American version of Battle Royale, but with Fox News blondes and Carhartt rednecks standing in for the Japanese school kids. Following a pair of establishing scenes featuring Hilary Swank and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Glenn Howerton—always delightful as a smug dickhead—we cut to black. Then the camera opens onto the familiar face of Emma Roberts (credited only as “Yoga Pants”), gagged with a silicone bit and dazedly wandering onto a grassy field. There, she and her fellow victims are confronted with a gigantic wooden crate containing a selection of heavy-duty firepower and, more puzzlingly, a pig in a T-shirt. We don’t have much time to dwell on the pig, however, because shortly thereafter bullets start flying and Roberts’ head explodes like a sprinkler full of human blood. The film will cycle through several more protagonists before settling on Crystal, a surprisingly funny touch that’s sharper than any of the political commentary in Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s script.
The violence in The Hunt is gory and often creative, with a penchant for unconventional weaponry that also recalls Fukasaku Kinji’s cult classic. (The film often wears its influences on its tattered, bloodstained sleeve, particularly in a brutal kitchen knife fight between two women clearly inspired by Kill Bill: Vol. 1.) Director Craig Zobel keeps the action legible and the plot moving at a brisk and entertaining pace, and as an action-horror hybrid, it works. And although her killing-machine bona fides remain shaky—even after being waved off with a single line of dialogue—Gilpin makes for an intelligent and expressive final girl. In a film that otherwise violently rejects subtlety, her face conveys the clever internal calculations before the explosive bursts of savagery, letting the audience in on a secret that’s, again, more engaging than any number of jokes about “crisis babies” and cultural appropriation.
As for the film’s much-ballyhooed political content, calling it a “satire” is perhaps overly generous. Calling it a Jordan Peele-style “social thriller” definitely is. Instead, it’s a parade of insufferable, on-the-nose references whose targets vary by the scene, with a quick trip to a refugee camp at one point just to underline the film’s self-satisfied belief in its own edginess. The Hunt does attempt to pull back and make a larger point later in the narrative, but this point is hopelessly confused; it may have something to do with the common refrain that liberals are “driving” people to vote for Trump with their oppressive political correctness, but that’s about as far as we can interpret it. And so, for all the hype and free publicity, in the end The Hunt is simply one of those whiz-bang genre flicks where you can absolutely fast-forward through the dialogue scenes.