‘The Hunt’: The Controversy-Baiting Movie That Made Trump Furious
Yes, the president got the Damon Lindelof-penned pitch-black satire about limousine liberals declaring war on red-state conservatives very, very wrong (as is his wont).
In what amounts to the opposite of breaking news, Donald Trump’s August 2019 tweets about The Hunt—which, along with two mass shootings, compelled Universal Pictures to delay the film’s original September 27 release—were hopelessly misguided.
Director Craig Zobel’s B-movie about a collection of wealthy liberals hunting kidnapped conservatives turns out to be a far cry from a simple blue-state screed against red-state inhabitants. Instead, this gleefully trashy, superficial satire takes shotgun aim at both Democrats and Republicans for their stereotypical assumptions about, and thin-skinned fury at, each other—and the ultraviolence that inevitably comes from such blind hatred.
Playing off its politicized-warfare conceit, the initial us-against-them ad campaign for The Hunt (debuting March 13) certainly courted controversy, and in hindsight, it was somewhat predictable that the president took the bait and used it to opportunistically rile up his base. Opportunism works both ways, however, and Universal has subsequently leaned into the hullabaloo by rebranding the thriller with the tagline, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” The result has been a cinematic machine that generates heated op-ed pieces and Twitter rants.
But what of the actual film? Written by Watchmen’s Damon Lindelof alongside his The Leftovers partner Nick Cuse, The Hunt operates similarly to Blumhouse Productions’ recent The Invisible Man in that it’s a lean genre effort predicated on hot-button issues. In this update of The Most Dangerous Game for our era of polarized discourse, it’s liberals orchestrating the mayhem, as the exploitative action opens with the sight of a mysterious woman participating in a group text chat in which, after Trump is referred to as the “ratfucker-in-chief,” she confesses she can’t wait to slaughter “deplorables” at the “manor.” An ensuing scene aboard a luxury jet confirms that said plan has been set in motion. Amidst snobbishly talking about caviar and champagne, a crew of genteel men and women freak out when a captive hillbilly emerges from his narcotized stupor and, for his disobedience, has his eyeball impaled, and removed, by a stiletto heel.
Those dastardly Democrats! The Hunt immediately segues to the sight of Emma Roberts—sporting bleach blonde locks—awakening in a field, a locked gag in her mouth. She follows other, similarly befuddled abductees to a large clearing, where they discover a crate housing a pig in a shirt, as well as a rack full of heavy-duty weapons. No sooner have they armed themselves than these strangers—including Ike Barinholtz and This is Us’ Justin Hartley—are besieged by deadly fire from unseen assailants. Director Zobel employs familiar faces to court sympathy for his preyed-upon victims, and then pulls the rug out from under viewers by offing some of them in gruesome fashion.
No one is safe from liberal “elites,” as confirmed by a following scene of three geographically disparate conservatives (spoiler alert: the Orlando native is the one covered in clownish gang tats) taking refuge at a gas station. The proprietors claim they’re in Arkansas, but when canny Crystal (Glow’s Betty Gilpin) arrives, she isn’t convinced by this ruse, and takes the fight to her assailants. Thus, what began as a jovial massacre perpetrated by individuals who believe in climate change and worry about whether or not African-Americans can now be called “blacks” (as NPR contends), transforms into a full-fledged war, with Crystal displaying a battlefield canniness that puts her lefty attackers on the defensive.
Since Crystal is never sure whether she’s dealing with friend or foe, it would be criminal to reveal what happens during her encounters with the likes of a right-wing podcaster (Ethan Suplee) who rails about being an unwitting participant in “Manorgate”—a conspiracy theory born from the introductory text-chat conversation—and that “globalist cucks who run the deep state” are behind it. While she never stoops to using the sort of ugly rhetoric found on far-right corners of Reddit and social media, her embattled comrades do, thereby underlining their repugnance and painting their torment as, if not justified, then still deserved. However, for every instance that The Hunt slams conservatives as bigoted know-nothing hicks, it also ridicules liberals as P.C. wokester cretins driven by a belief system that’s as intolerantly extreme as that of their enemies. Lindelof and Cuse’s script is an equal-opportunity denouncer, casting everyone in this conflict as a distasteful radical eager to kill for sport, survival or the simple thrill of validating their ideology.
Does that make The Hunt juvenile and wishy-washy? Yes, especially as it barrels forward to a ho-hum finale that’s been designed to have it both ways, courtesy of a late Crystal twist. Yet even at its shakiest, Zobel’s film gets decent mileage out of making audience members flip-flop between rooting for Crystal and company to take down their bloodthirsty oppressors, and hoping these conservatives experience some Second Amendment-enabled suffering. One can imagine moviegoers of both political persuasions enjoying (and being disgusted by) this carnage, which benefits from fleet pacing and sharp staging that leads to a series of surprises that play off the idea that, in this age of endless paranoia and disinformation, no one can be trusted.
Primarily, The Hunt benefits from Gilpin as its de facto heroine, a Mississippi car-rental employee with an aptitude for weapons and hand-to-hand combat. Speaking sparsely but conveying much with a steely glare, the actress is as ferocious as they come. Yet what makes her performance so electric are the occasional moments—lifting her feet and twisting sideways to boot someone out of a speeding car, for instance—when her eyes go wide, the corners of her mouth curl upwards in a slight smile, and she transforms into a cartoonish angel of death. Even when paired against her final adversary (a cameoing Hilary Swank), Gilpin is the star of the show. And while her Crystal may liken herself to a jackrabbit (via a gruesome version of “The Tortoise and the Hare”), the lasting impression she leaves is of a merciless Bugs Bunny, hopping her way through a minefield of mad fanatics.