Hunt, The (2020)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/11/20 13:14:41
At one point during “The Hunt,” the controversial dark comedy-thriller hybrid that was famously pulled from its original release slot last fall after the first trailer hit and some people took offense at what they assumed it was about, one of the characters caught up in the titular event is trying to analyze what might be a clue as to what is going on but is unsure how to read it—is it the work of a smart person trying to come across like an idiot or an idiot trying to come across as smart. My guess is that many people charged with analyzing this particular film are going to be feeling the same way after watching it. It contains a premise that certainly grabs ones attention and suggests the kind of barbed and uncompromising satire that harkens back to Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Unlike that story, which took its outrageous and bleakly funny concept and used it as a springboard for genuinely thought-provoking social commentary, “The Hunt” quickly reveals itself to be good at establishing its own provocative premise but not so hot when it comes to the follow-through—it ends up essentially being a one-joke movie where one’s enjoyment will depend to a large degree on how quickly they get tired of that particular joke.By now, most of you are probably familiar with the basic set-up of the film. A small group of strangers wake up in a clearing with ball gags in their mouths, a packing crate containing guns and a pig and absolutely no explanation as to who the others are or what they are doing there in the first place. They barely have time gets acclimated to their circumstances when they are set upon by hidden attackers who hit them with bullets, arrows and a few nasty surprises. Several of them are killed almost instantly while a few others manage to make it to a nearby road. To them, it appears that they are the latest unwilling participants in a dark Internet rumor that they have heard—that every year, a shadowy cabal of liberal elites kidnap a group of conservative types and take them to a remote manor in order to hunt them down for sport. While most of the hunted end up getting cut down in gruesome ways, one, Crystal (Betty Gilpin), manages to stay one step ahead of the various booby traps and decides to take on her attackers in equally brutal fashion while trying to figure out what is going on and why she has been made an unwilling part of it all.
In essence, the idea behind “The Hunt” is to take the basic concept of Richard Connell’s famous 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (which has itself been filmed, either in official adaptations or blatant ripoffs, numerous times over the years)—jaded hunters who have moved on from big game to human targets for their hunts—and fuse it to the current Internet culture where people on both sides of the political spectrum hurl brutal and cruel invective at each other from the safety and anonymity of their phones and laptops. However, instead of taking that particular idea and using it as the foundation for a more complex narrative, screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have convinced themselves that their concept was so strong that it didn’t need any further development. Aside from one very clunky interlude meant to remind viewers that there are real problems in the world that people could focus their energies on instead of taking potshots, both metaphorical and literal, at each other, the film quickly descends into an endless series of scenes in which wild caricatures of liberals and conservatives slaughter each other while delivering dialogue spike with the slang and catchphrases found on Twitter. Director Craig Zobel keeps things moving along at a decent clip and demonstrates a good facility for staging his action sequences in a reasonably coherent fashion. However, after a while, you keep hoping that something—anything—might happen to change things up or send the story in a new direction but nothing doing. (On the other hand, there are a couple of ham-handed allusions to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that are more embarrassing than edifying.)
When “The Hunt” was first announced, it caused a firestorm in right-wing circles among people who were simply aghast at the notion of a film in which liberals hunt down and kill Trump supporters for fun (which makes me wonder how many of those same people griped about the “Purge” franchise). Therefore, it makes it doubly strange to watch it in light of all that controversy and discover just how resoundingly apolitical the whole thing really is and not just because Trump is never specifically mentioned even once. At first glance, one might assume that it is striving to be a contemporary version of films such as Jonathan Demme’s “Caged Heat,” Stephanie Rothman’s “Terminal island” and virtually the entire oeuvre of the late Larry Cohen—movies that blended together easily exploitable genre elements (blood, breasts and beasts, as Joe Bob Briggs would say) with screenplays that examined the social issues of the day alongside all of the trashier stuff. In those cases, not to mention the thematically similar directorial efforts of Jordan Peele, “Get Out” and “US,” the movies worked (and continue to do so) in no small part because you always had the sense that the filmmakers were more interested in the more serious-minded aspects of the story and were simply using the trashier elements as a way of dealing with them in the context of a film that people might actually see.
Here, you never have any sense that Zobel or the screenwriters are trying to use their premise as anything more than a hook to set it apart from other gory action films. This is especially evident during the final section of the film, which ostensibly tries to answer all the questions raised by the previous hour but which only succeeds i raiding additional questions it has no interest in answering while trying to flatten out whatever punch there might have been with a good-people-on-both-sides take that wants to take people to task for regarding those on the other side of the political aisle as grotesque caricatures (even though the film itself has been doing that for the most part up to that point) and forgetting that they are still real people with real lives and concerns that are not always taken into consideration. (It is a good thing the film is coming to a close at this point because one might end up missing some parts from having their eyes rolling up into their heads.)On a purely surface level, “The Hunt” has its superficial charms—there are some genuinely funny bits (though the line that may get the loudest laugh of all is one with a certain cultural resonance that it would not have had if the film had come out last fall), a couple of actual surprises and some gruesomely effective bits of carnage—and it is sort of entertaining for a while. In addition, it features an undeniably charismatic performance by Gilpin and an amusing turn in the late innings by Hillary Swank as a mysterious woman who holds the key to explaining everything—at some point, she must have given up trying to make any actual sense out of her character—much like the screenplay itself—and instead elects to chew up the scenery with obvious relish. And yet, it cannot figure out a way to sustain its premise for the duration of a reasonably short running time and the more you think about it afterwards, the more empty and obvious it feels in retrospect and the fact that it clearly thinks that it is smarter than it actually is only makes it even more awkward. This is a film that clearly wants to inspire think pieces regarding the issues it pretends to raise but in the end, it probably doesn’t rate anything more incisive than a meme stating “I See What You Did There.”
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