2020, R, 89 min. Directed by Craig Zobel. Starring Betty Gilpin, Ike Barinholtz, Hilary Swank, Emma Roberts, Wayne Duvall, Amy Madigan, Ethan Suplee, Glenn Howerton, Macon Blair.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 13, 2020
Whatever you think you know about The Hunt, you're wrong. And even if you're factually right, you're missing all the context that makes this big, nasty satire the political throat punch/rallying cry we all need.
As you probably heard when Blumhouse pulled the initial release after the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings last year, The Hunt is the latest iteration of Richard Connell's 1924 novella "The Most Dangerous Game." A bunch of rich people get a bunch of poor people, let them loose on a sealed estate, and undertake a two-legged bottle hunt. Here the hunters are a group of rich liberals (ostensibly of the "would have voted for Obama thrice") camp, and they've kidnapped a bunch of assorted ordinary schmoes best described (as in a text exchange that becomes increasingly vital) as straight-from-central-casting deplorables.
Hold up. If that makes you think that this is simply trust-fund Maoist fan fiction, then that means you're prejudging as badly as the right wingers who decided they were being victimized by this film. And if you think that this is about a bunch of poor "regular people" abused by the elite, you may as well sign up for that National Review column. For this to be successful satire, one would expect it to be a scalpel. Instead, it's a scythe, cutting everyone down to size, and director Craig Zobel is an unequaled reaper. He has never believed in black-and-white characters. His debut feature, Great World of Sound, made sympathetic figures of scam artists. His followup, the drawn-from-real-events Compliance, showed how little it takes for good people to become tools of evil. The Hunt gives you every reason to dislike everyone: The prey aren't exactly easy to like, and the hunters are the worst of the one percent. Politics be damned, none of them would be easy to spend an evening with, and that's before you get to Gilpin's Snowball.
It's an outstanding cast that captures Zobel's balance between chaos and commentary (most especially Howerton and Barinholtz, who trod similar territory in the overlooked and underrated The Oath), but this is Gilpin's film. If you're wondering, this is proof final that the Glow star is a mesmerizing force. As housewife-turned-wrestler Debbie Eagan in the Netflix show, she mixed fragility with a burgeoning strength: Here she's as terrifying as she is sympathetic as Crystal, the prey with the dark side and the priorities that may not mesh with anyone around her. She deserves to break out as an action star in the same way as Ready or Not's Samara Weaving.
And that may be the biggest surprise in The Hunt – that Zobel suddenly became a top notch action director. Not big bang, cars-and-explosion kind of action (although there's plenty of that), but gritty, grimy, smash-mouth action, all head butts and headshots. There's a closing fight scene that's reminiscent of both Kill Bill and Leigh Whannel's camera-flipping, teeth-shaking work in Upgrade.
The whipsmart script from Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, fresh off their highwire balancing act on HBO's Watchmen reinvention, is lean and ingenious, laden with simple digs at what both sides want (there's a wonderfully sardonic moment of the Elites giving the Deplorables their precious 2A rights). With their text, Zobel somehow lands the same unapologetic, confrontational, caustic, swiping yet targeted critique of modern culture that his peer, the profoundly underground Onur Tukel, hit with Cat Fight and The Misogynists. Yet he wraps it up in a more accessible, hilarious, and action-packed form that lands as solid a punch as Gilpin.