I would have been very happy to review The Hunt back in September when the very provocative first trailer was making the rounds. After the tragic shootings in Dayton and El Paso (and Donald Trump decrying the film on his ever monstrous Twitter account), Universal pulled the film indefinitely, only to release it a few months later. Going back and watching that first trailer now, I can definitely see why there was so much negative buzz around it, as that piece of marketing made the film look way more serious than it actually is. In reality, The Hunt is a black comedy from Craig Zobel, director of Compliance (and co-creator of pioneer web series Homestar Runner). Damon Lindelof is also one of the two credited writers, and his penmanship brings a lot of interesting ideas to the table in terms of narrative and thematic content.
The first twenty minutes or so of The Hunt don’t pull any punches in its burning satire. A crawling text conversation introduces the concept of the hunt, complete with a cheeky inclusion of “deplorables,” a word that keeps coming up in the film despite a majority of today’s audience probably having forgotten the once-infamous Hillary Clinton remark. We move to a plane where a rich guy mansplains to his flight attendant before a confused, plaid-clad bald man storms into the room, only to be murdered by the man and his associate. Like I said, this one doesn’t mess around. We get to the hunting grounds, where eleven (not twelve, thanks to previously mentioned rich man’s hastiness) people wake up in a field and find a crate. As they’re immediately attacked, the viewer is disoriented by who the protagonist is supposed to be—nearly every member of the hunted team is picked off at random. This first act is where the film is at its strongest, using that disoriented feeling to place the audience in the minds of the characters.
After those opening scenes, we focus in on Betty Gilpin’s Crystal, a hard as nails woman who immediately gets the upper hand on her tormentors and escapes. Her performance is what makes the movie worth watching as Gilpin brings a surprising amount of relatability to the Mississippian protagonist. Even as the satire of the film engulfs her, Gilpin manages to stay in a relatively grounded and therefore compelling place. The second act finds her and another member of the hunted attempting to find and kill their conspirators, and this is where the film tries its hardest satirically. Immigration, tokenism, conspiracy theories, veganism, cancel culture, and the right and left’s differing feelings on all of these things are all brought to the chopping block as the film goes on, spending a surprising amount of time with the snooty and comically woke-policing villains, as well as Crystal and her underprepared fellow survivors.
Sadly, The Hunt loses a lot of steam as it carries on. The plot suffers from an overreliance on bait-and-switches that don’t really impact Crystal’s path for revenge and only puts speed bumps in a very straight road. When Hilary Swank is finally introduced as the villain, we get a ten minute flashback explaining how the titular hunting process came to be. This detour admittedly offers a bit of commentary on the social media age as Swank’s villain is a very petty person seeking revenge for her reputation being ruined by people that she looks down on. Once Crystal and the villain finally face off we do get a surprisingly earnest conversation between them about the divide I previously mentioned. They both have their assumptions about each other, they both are plenty aware that they’ll never see eye to eye, and even when they come to blows they manage to find a semblance of common ground.
Lindelof certainly elevates the material above the trashy and frankly hair-brained concept, with Zobel bringing strong direction to the project as well. The casting choices of certain characters are also inspired, though it would be a spoiler to really explain why. There’s a surprising amount of depth given to the divide between parties and classes that is at first played for Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker-esque gags. The controversy surrounding this movie was earned thanks to that morbid first trailer, but in my opinion the final product is not some scathing indictment of the two-party system. It’s such an oddball of a film that there’s an entire section of its Wikipedia article dedicated to a self-argument about its proper genre classification. I would simply call it a broad satire, and not a bad one at that.