2020 | rated R | starring Betty Gilpin, Ethan Suplee, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Glenn Howerton, Hilary Swank | directed by Craig Zobel | 1 hr 30 mins |
The most interesting thing about The Hunt is it’s rocky ride to the public. It’s not it’s people-hunting premise, which is more nakedly The Most Dangerous Game than Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, The Running Man and other hunting-humans-for-sport satires. It’s not the politics herein, which is at times so muffled and vague that it refuses to comment on anything. It’s that the film was pushed back after a mass shooting in El Paso, TX in a shameless virtue signaling move by a movie studio that releases glamorized 2-hour gun commercials all year and suddenly backed off and played the role of the social consciousness. After a 6 month delay, The Hunt is back with it’s own built-in hype machine. Promotional material plays into that beautifully, marketing it as a banned, talked-about and even dangerous movie, trying to recapture a little bit of that The Interview intensity where for a brief moment seeing a Seth Rogen stoner comedy felt like an act of free speech rebellion. Now that it’s out, it seems less like social concern and more like Universal was just trying to distance its people-hunting movie from another people-hunting movie: the stylish, clever, critically acclaimed Ready or Not.
Like Battle Royale and many of these movies, it opens with a group of people waking up in a mysterious place – a field in the woods – not knowing where they are or how they got there. Like Battle Royale they are given a random assortment of guns to fight back with and then – quicker than you can say Count Zaroff – are chased around by weapon-wielding wealthy people. The hunting set piece is actually jettisoned from the story shockingly early and it downshifts in intensity into something of a politically spiked road trip movie. It hits a high point at a gas station with an elderly couple who speaks in political buzzwords that, frankly, I could have stayed in for the rest of the running time.
There is a good scene in the otherwise pile of trash that is Eli Roth’s Hostel, Part 2 where we see the wealthy from all over the world taking time out of their golf game to bid on American tourists in order to win a chance to torture them. We get a glimpse of how the business of people-hunting in the Hostel world works. That kind of rule-setting structure is something The Hunt desperately needs. Written by Nick Cuse and puzzle-box man himself Damon Lindelof and directed by Craig Zobel (Coherence and standout episodes of The Leftovers), The Hunt isn’t a clever political satire as much as a rebel without a cause rapscallion that grabs every political talking point and catch phase that a quick glimpse at Facebook will give you and throws it all in the air with equal distain. I’m all about that. Great comedies don’t have an agenda. They see folly in everything someone else may hold dear. The problem here is the very thing that would make the movie fun (under better writers) as a political ear-thump works against it as a thriller. The movie ultimately refuses to be about anything – even a message of independence or centrism – right down to the very end. Is there really a park where the elite hunt people they’ve deemed to be subhuman flyover country hillbillies? Cuse, Lindelof and Zobel keep running away from their own premise, afraid to point a finger at anything. The movie has no beginning and no ending and the closure we do get (set to the tired template of the villain monologuing while Beethoven plays and they do something mundane like make a grilled cheese sandwhich, for christ sake) is conveyed so clumsily that it makes no sense.
But back to what works for a second, many, many movies have rich villains and many of rich business tycoons and war-mongering politicians, but it’s rare beyond rare to have your movie villains exclusively be the one group of people in popular culture that you cannot make fun of: liberals. Yes, The Hunt’s flat characters all talk in idiotic political buzzwords and they treat each other as animals for their politics, but the movie really has fun with it’s particularly aloof liberal villains who are constantly going on about how much smarter they are then everyone else and tripping over every word they say for fear it may be racist, sexist or gendered. I wanted more of this if only because that’s where the movie could plant a flag on untouched soil.
Zobel puts it all together pretty shabbily, or at best is unable to hide the stitches of the budgetary limitations that crack through the edges of the movie. The Hunt feels like a Project Greenlight movie. It winks at us constantly but the jokes rarely land. It’s violent and bloody, but rarely fun or tense. It shows brief shimmers of clever ideas but gutlessly moves to the next thing without exploring them. In a time when “both sides” of the political spectrum are defined by their extremes and the internet has made herding them together easier. When one side can take a joke and the other will look at this movie and deem itself unworthy of mockery because they are fighting for the fate of the country (like this). That is exactly the people who need a movie like this crammed own their throat no matter how lame it is. Like it’s liberal villains The Hunt trips all over itself trying to get there. Watching Betty Gilpin bug out her eyes and tell a deadpan horrific version of the Tortoise and the Hare story is a spark of life, but The Hunt is ultimately gutless, confusing and incompetent. It is unable to put together a fun people-hunting movie and refuses to take even the most centrist of stands. To even give it’s main character a motivation.
Maybe I’ve gotten too cynical, but this is one of those movies where you can see right through the stitching. That is unable to hide every obstacle that went into putting it together (obstacles that occur on every movie and it’s the director’s job to cover them up). The type of movie where the bigger name the actor is you can almost count the seconds before their death scene because the movie didn’t have the budget for more than a day of shooting with them. Where characters rarely interact with each other because they must have been staggering shooting schedules and never met on set. Hilary Swank’s character is Athena, who seems to be the mind behind the hunting ground (Manor-gate, as it is called in conspiracy circles), whom the movie shoots almost entirely from behind as if to give the character a sense of mystery, but really it’s just because Swank wasn’t on set those days. It is that slapped together. I was never for a minute able to forget that I was watching a movie which, beyond politics and violence, just might be the worst thing a movie can do.