I really want to like The Hunt. As an object of scorn and right wing media smears, not to mention a one-time shiny distraction for our ever distracted president, the horror-comedy in which liberal elites hunt red state “deplorables” was maligned and distorted by Fox News’ funhouse mirror. But despite all that, The Hunt just really wants to be liked by everyone on both sides of the aisle with its straight down the middle “you’re all nuts” commentary.
Granted the movie is certainly the product of liberal filmmakers turning election cycle politics into blood sport, but only in the most self-deprecating and self-satisfied way. The cinematic equivalent of Andy Borowitz’s standup routine at The New Yorker Festival, one can almost see the words crafted by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse’s screenplay strain as they reach out of the screen to pat their own back. The only thing missing is an applause sign.
An admittedly delicious riff on Merian C. Cooper’s The Most Dangerous Game, The Hunt imagines a world in which the worst nightmares of Breitbart readers and QAnon conspiracy theorists are true: there is a cadre of rich elites who look down on gun-clinging and Bible-thumping “hicks” and rednecks—assuming every white Southerner is a racist, and each cowpoke who says “ma’am” is a not-so-secret misogynist. In this environment, a dozen conservative archetypes wake up in the middle of a field and with a cornucopia of guns to choose from. The weapons are located inside a box with a mischievous pig wearing a frilly shirt. It’s the first of many allusions to George Orwell’s Animal Farm—I guess Nineteen Eighty-Four is played out?—and a promise that the hunt is on.
Among the prey is a conservative queen bee type who might’ve gotten a job at Fox in another life (Emma Roberts), a retired Air Force good ol’ boy (Wayne Duvall), a paranoid member of Alex Jones’ target demographic (Ethan Suplee), and more. But the one who really matters is Crystal (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin), a Mississippi gal who the elites should’ve thought twice about taking given her no-nonsense killer instinct after two tours in Afghanistan. Everyone around her might be in danger, but with Crystal, the only threat is tripping over the preening irony in the dialogue she exchanges with her progressive double (Hillary Swank).
High off its elevator pitch concept, there is some very clever plotting in The Hunt. Subverting its setup, the film attempts to feign multiple twists, most of which the final trailer gave away. One can even imagine the filmmakers, led by director Craig Zobel, threw the word “Hitchockian” around set with its multiple Janet Leighs. Yet the finished product is closer to if Hitchcock ran a good idea into the ground by doing it over and over again, like a punchline diminishing every time it’s repeated.
For this is a film that is quite convinced it is the smartest picture in the multiplex. The movie is quick to point out sharp ironies in certain modern progressives who might consider utterances of “hey guys” in mixed company to be microaggressions, but have no problem then aggressively reducing half a nation they disagree with to “deplorables.” Yet the humor is too glib to actually invite more than a handful of chuckles, nor is its concessions to military-serving, God-fearing folks like Gilpin’s Crystal anything better than tokenism. It doesn’t so much critique the Hillary Clinton pretension of saying half of Republican voters are deplorable than it finds a few who are a credit to their kind.
It’s a shame too because Gilpin is good—like really good. With a Mississippi twang and curt bluntness that is miles away from her entertainment industry maverick in GLOW, Gilpin is clearly having a ball playing the badass who doesn’t have time for this nonsense. While the rest of her red state quarry are like a collection of Reddit user stereotypes, one senses Crystal has been hijacked from a tougher corner of the delta (and a better movie).
Nonetheless, it is a disappointment that The Hunt is otherwise such a failure. Lindelof is fresh off the highlight of his career via HBO’s Watchmen, which Cuse wrote for. Cuse has also done strong work on Netflix’s Maniac, while Zobel helmed the underrated if flawed Z for Zachariah. But their combined efforts lean into the worst impulses of Lindelof’s more grating writings. Even with literal splatter gags in which characters are blown to pieces while their killers make pithy comments about Long Island, the hunters are still never so smug as the movie they’re trapped in. And when compared to films like last year’s delightful Ready or Not, which featured the rich hunting a middle class girl for absurdly hilarious reasons, The Hunt just looks smarmy.
Then again, this 2020 movie was probably aiming to be something more provocative than that goofy good time. It more or less shows its hand early when a white elderly couple massacre three conservatives while bemoaning the awfulness of “white people.” The heavy-handed moment not-so-coincidentally echoes Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener’s introduction in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which was also produced by Blumhouse Productions. The irony is The Hunt so clearly wants to be Get Out and check its target audiences’ privilege. But in the end, it just feels like it spent 90 minutes saying, “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could.”
The Hunt is in theaters on Friday the 13th.