This movie ain’t subtle. But for all its lack of subtlety, The Hunt actually takes a little time to reveal its true intention, and a huge part of what makes the movie so fun is its almost constant misdirection. Which makes it, frankly, incredibly hard to talk about.
So what can I say about The Hunt that might preserve for you the sense of consistent surprise and delight I experienced in the film’s first half? I can say that this is a lean, propulsive movie; The Hunt begins deep in the good stuff, with a private plane full of liberal elites transporting a bunch of unconscious ‘deplorables’ to an unknown location to hunt them for sport. When one of the deplorables wakes up too early, while the plane is still high in the sky, the ensuing fight – which is ugly, funny and profoundly violent (the deplorable takes a stiletto to his eye; when the stiletto is pulled out his eye and the cord attached to it comes slithering out of his face hole) – sums up what you’re about to get for the next 90 minutes.
Yes, The Hunt is about liberal woke elites hunting Trump voters (one scene has an older couple arguing about whether or not you should say “Black” or “African-American” moments after slaughtering a trio of people with whom they have political disagreements) but it’s about a lot more than that. There’s a subversive heart beating under its gleefully gory shell, and the script by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse is less about the politics that divide us and more about the ugly personal fighting online that fuels those politics. In the end it’s the most specific call for class solidarity I have seen in a movie lately, although telling you how it gets there would constitute and truly egregious spoiler.
The Hunt is poking its fingers in just about everybody’s eyes – it’s making fun of Trump voters and QAnon lunatics (this is really a movie about Pizzagate when it’s all said and done), but it’s also joyfully pantsing the liberal white upper class. There’s almost certainly a character in this film who will push your buttons and make you angry, and they will almost certainly get killed in a gloriously violent way. But the movie isn’t a case of ‘both sides’-ism so much as it’s an examination of the ways that our preconceived notions of people harden into prejudices, and the way those prejudices become weird reality. I don’t think the movie politically agrees with the Trumpers, and it doesn’t politically disagree with the elites, but rather it’s critical of the Discourse itself. That dreaded Discourse, the thing that has people behaving like absolute monsters to one another online, that has them dehumanizing one another over every disagreement, no matter how minor.
Yes, in many ways The Hunt is Damon Lindelof’s revenge on the Internet. To say more would, again, be spoiling, but this movie understands how the Internet works and the ways it makes us not only angry but absolutely mad. And that space of extreme human psychology is a space where director Craig Zobel plays well. It’s surprising that this is a Zobel film, to be honest – it’s more playful than I would have imagined him capable. But that just goes to show you shouldn’t be pigeonholing filmmakers because they excel at capturing dark humanity in movies like Compliance – it just means they are comfortable in the dark and know how to make a little light in it.
Make no mistake, The Hunt is an exploitation film. The movie’s cancelation late last year was a publicity stunt on par with the best of William Castle, and its current promotional campaign is legend-level when it comes to exploitation movies. This is the movie they didn’t want you to see, and what’s best of all is that they is a completely ill-defined thing… which is largely what The Hunt is actually about.
As an exploitation film it gets grisly (although remains steadfastly non-sexual. Our modern exploitation films are all more prudish than they once were, likely because exploitation has gone mainstream). A friend told me he didn’t like The Hunt because it’s a one-joke movie, telling that joke again and again and – fair! It’s hard to deny that. I like the joke, thankfully. But more than that, I like the violence. It’s extraordinary, and Zobel manages to hit a sweet spot between cartoonish and painful – you feel the kills, but you still have the moral space to relish them. That violence is what I think elevates The Hunt far above last year’s similarly-themed Ready or Not, a movie that promised a badass action extravaganza and had about three servants getting killed during the course of the whole runtime. The poster-promoted toughness of star Samara Weaving never materialized in the movie itself – she barely did anything.
But the unpromoted toughness of Betty Gilpin elevates The Hunt to a whole other level. Her performance in this movie is transformative; while she’s been great (especially on Glow, which actually gave her the space to be complex and deep), she’s never been anything like she is in this film. And she’s not playing a badass woman – she’s playing just a badass borderline sociopath, sort of like Riddick in Pitch Black or John Rambo in First Blood. Gilpin makes her character both scary and magnetic, like all the best badass borderline sociopaths in action movies, and she brings a physicality to the role that is mesmerizing. It’s legitimately one of my favorite performances of the year, and I suspect it’ll maintain that as 2020 goes on (assuming they get back to releasing new movies at some point this year).
The Hunt is definitely not for everybody; there’s a level of graphic violence that keeps this movie slightly non-mainstream (unless, post-The Walking Dead, a woman who has had the lower half of her body blown off lying in a tiger trap while her intestines splay out where her legs should be grabbing a man’s gun and telling him to ‘kill me, snowflake!’ is mainstream. Maybe it is), but it certainly is for me. And part of what makes it for me is that while it is satirical and dark, it isn’t snide or snarky. As violent and bloody as it is, The Hunt doesn’t feel particularly mean (which, I know is a lot to say about a movie where a man has a grenade shoved down his pants and explodes). There’s a juvenile glee to the violence, but it’s not cruel, a strange and difficult line for a filmmaker to walk with subject matter like this.
As for whether it’s anti-Trump… I mean, yes. Of course it is. But it’s not actually promoting the hunting and killing of deplorables. And it’s not saying that liberal elites are chomping at the bit to slaughter rednecks and Floridians. It’s about the ways that we come to believe these extreme positions are true and widely held, and how we use these delusional visions of our fellow humans as an excuse to wreak absolute havoc.