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In August 2019, the theatrical release of Craig Zobel’s The Hunt was indefinitely delayed. This was the result of a controversy in the wake of the movie’s first trailer (which admittedly did put an emphasis on the “horror” side of the horror/comedy), and the suggestion that “Hollywood” was pushing a blockbuster advocating violence against conservatives. Of course, all of these various attacks came from people who hadn’t actually seen the film, and the reactions were entirely based on the limited footage released and the studio-published plot description.
Now it’s almost exactly seven months later, and while nothing in the world has really changed, and nothing in the movie has changed, The Hunt is arriving in theaters nationwide. That fact alone makes one wonder what the point of the controversy/delay was in the first place, but there is an extra kicker: not only is the film a smart, even-handed satire that plays no favorites when poking fun, the way that the narrative surrounding the release ultimately lines up with one of the core messages of the story is so deeply ironic that it is essentially meta.
Written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, and initially inspired by the wild conspiracy theories that populate right wing message boards, The Hunt brings one of these radical ideas to life with the execution of an event dubbed Manorgate. Orchestrated by the mysterious billionaire CEO Athena (Hilary Swank), the “game” finds a group of strangers kidnapped, drugged, and let loose on the property of a vast estate where they are hunted by Athena’s rich, liberal friends. None of them have any specific idea as to why they were targeted, though they all generally possess conservative values.
While just about everybody is sincerely freaked out and looking for an exit, the only one keeping her wits about her is the enigmatic Crystal a.k.a. Snowball (Betty Gilpin). Of those being hunted, she is uniquely skilled to not only adapt to her environment, but also take the fight to the hunters.
The Hunt finds ways to both be grounded in the real world, and impressively silly.
The Hunt is a film that definitely benefits from having an audience that knows as little about it as possible going in, as the twists and surprises it has in store come flying at you immediately, and it’s fascinating to simply let the movie reveal itself to you. A big part of what makes it so compelling is a unique approach to world-building, which both leans into the boundary-pushing horror/comedy elements while still keeping a foot firmly planted in reality. As everything unfolds, it’s easy to recognize the news stories that clearly inspired the larger ideas behind the plot (some of them specifically namedropped), and at the same time it’s clear that Craig Zobel, Damon Lindelof, and Nick Cuse have a blast taking those ideas to their most extreme points without ever breaking them.
To that end, this is a movie that definitely doesn’t lean away from its R-rating, which is something that winds up serving both aspects of the tone throughout. The first act alone, featuring the start of Manorgate, is a fantastic representation of this. Put into the minds of the characters that find themselves waking up on the ground gagged in a mysterious location, you immediately sympathize with the terror that they are experiencing – but then once things start going absolutely haywire The Hunt starts to have its fun. In certain moments it causes you to start laughing simply by throwing a series of surprises directly into your face, and in others it’s about a certain level of gratuitousness at which you can’t help but giggle.
If you have strong political views, but can also laugh at yourself, you’ll enjoy The Hunt.
Like any horror movie or any comedy, there is a subjective nature to the material, as not everybody digs on bloody violence, and everybody’s interpretation of the word “funny” is different – but what’s particularly interesting about The Hunt is how it engages with an individual audience member’s political leanings. While the controversy surrounding the film suggests particular bias, the reality is that this movie is for everybody, and particularly the politically invested… provided that they have the capacity to laugh at themselves. It takes aim at much of the ridiculousness that can be found in both right wing and left wing ideologies, but more importantly it targets commonalities between the two sides and satirically exposes them, allowing the movie-goers an interesting opportunity for self-reflection.
There are certain moments where it tries a bit too hard, particularly when throwing around zeitgeist terms that have a tendency to clang and feel unnatural. Far more often than not, however, it clicks, and those who allow themselves to be open to it may even gain an certain amount of perspective they may not have had prior to seeing the movie – which is truly one of the greatest gifts of satire.
Betty Gilpin delivers an excellent performance as part of a well-utilized ensemble.
The cherry on top of the Hunt sundae is that audiences are treated to an amazing big screen breakthrough performance from Betty Gilpin. Fans of shows like Nurse Jackie and GLOW are certainly already well-aware of what the actor can do, as she has been doing great work for years, but she is given the opportunity to shine as Crystal in a way we haven’t seen before in features. It’s a touch strange, as the character is purposefully maintained as an enigma throughout the film, but she is captivating from the moment she is introduced – seen from afar getting her bearings by creating a makeshift compass with a pin, a leaf, and a pool of water. Over the course of the movie we only learn scant details about her past, but she makes for a compelling heroine with an iron-tight grip on her emotions and awesome fortitude.
While revealing too much about them would be a disservice to The Hunt and your experience watching the movie, the rest of the ensemble is also outstanding and well-utilized – not to mention that any character actor geek is going to have a field day simply identifying the recognizable faces. Very much delivering on the unexpected, Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz are standouts among the supporting cast with roles guaranteed to surprise, and Hilary Swank’s Athena winds up being a fantastically layered antagonist, but we also get some fun times with Ethan Suplee, Glenn Howerton, Amy Madigan, Wayne Duvall, Macon Blair, and more in diverse and surprising roles. At the end of the day, though, this is Betty Gilpin’s show, and she rules.
There is a weird number of people who seem to think that they have The Hunt totally figured out sight unseen, but it should be made clear: they don’t. What this movie is actually about is the danger and consequences that come with jumping to extreme conclusions without sufficient evidence, and that fact alone will hopefully get some blind detractors to purchase a ticket and give it a chance. Provided you go into it with openness and are willing to hear what it has to say, you won’t be disappointed.