Note: This article contains spoilers for The Hunt, which releases March 13.
The Hunt is a damp squib.
The Hunt reportedly originated in the final days of production on the last season of The Leftovers. Writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof were musing on what to do next, and they settled on a riff on Richard Connell’s classic story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” whose formula has since been revisited and tweaked many times. Cuse and Lindelof’s approach would root the film in contemporary American politics. They agreed that veteran Leftovers director Craig Zobel would direct it, and they would develop the project at horror specialty studio Blumhouse.
Universal acquired the script and fast-tracked development, assigning the movie a modest budget of $18M and scheduled for release on September 27, 2019. Then, following controversy about the film spurred by Fox News and echoed by President Donald Trump, Universal did a U-turn and announced that they had decided to “cancel” the release of The Hunt. They did not acknowledge that conservative outrage played a role in this decision, instead blaming mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton a week earlier. There is reason to be skeptical of this.
Universal conducted test screenings after the shootings and found audiences of both political persuasions “befuddled” by the idea they would be upset by the film after the shootings. It is revealing that marketing for the re-release leans into the controversy. The new trailer urged viewers to “decide for (themselves).” The poster for the release is decorated with quotes of moral outrage.
While there is something terrifying in the idea that the president of the United States would use his influence to quash the release of a movie he had not seen, this whole process is cynical. The Hunt has turned this controversy into a marketing bonanza. An otherwise generic B-movie with a familiar premise is selling itself as “the most talked about movie nobody has ever seen.”
A cynical observer might contend that the “cancellation” was a shrewd move. Not only did it get people talking, but it moved the film’s release out of the path of Ready or Not. Ready or Not was another riff on “The Most Dangerous Game” focusing on wealth and class. It would have opened a month before The Hunt, earning strong reviews and performing well. Avoiding Ready or Not was a canny move.
However, now that people have actually seen The Hunt, it is abundantly clear that all the controversy was a pointless storm in a teacup. There is nothing controversial in The Hunt. The film actively goes out of its way to avoid anything that might actively alienate audiences of either political persuasion, deliberately avoiding making anything resembling a cogent point beyond broad comedy.
This was entirely foreseeable at the height of the controversy. For all the outrage stoked by Donald Trump and Fox News, the basic plot summary undermines any reading of The Hunt being a liberal revenge fantasy. Who watches a version of “The Most Dangerous Game” and roots for the hunters? The nature of the story ensures that the audience’s sympathy would always be with the hunted.
Indeed, The Hunt goes out of its way to avoid getting bogged down in politics. The opening act cycles through a set of decoy protagonists, introducing one audience-identification character only to brutally kill them off and switch to another. The film does this three times. It’s the film’s cleverest structural conceit, rotating through recognizable actors like Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz.
Beyond working as an effective suspense mechanism, this approach prevents the audience from getting too close to the characters. The audience is never directly confronted with the political beliefs or worldview of these characters before they are killed off. What little political characterization occurs is framed in lazy soundbites — “snowflake,” “cuck,” and so forth.
In its second act, the film settles on a protagonist. Crystal is played by Betty Gilpin and immediately distinguished from her colleagues. She doesn’t recognize the nonsense conspiracy theories that they are spouting, she doesn’t believe in “crisis actors,” and she is highly pragmatic about things like guns. Insomuch as Crystal is given a personality, she is defined in opposition to the other hunted.
Indeed, this builds to the film’s big twist. Crystal is not meant to be there. She was abducted by mistake. She was never one of the “deplorables” supposed to be hunted for sport. Indeed, The Hunt never even bothers to determine whether she voted for — to use the villains’ phraseology — the “ratfucker-in-chief.” Crystal could be anybody and, in effect, winds up being nobody.
This reflects how substantively apolitical The Hunt actually is, for all its bluster. A bolder film would engage with the premise and test the limits of presumed audience empathy for people who support camps where immigrant children die or who believe immigrants are “rapists” or “animals.” That would be genuinely daring and provocative, but The Hunt consistently retreats from anything like that.
In some ways, this recalls the controversy around Joker. Todd Phillips’ film attracted considerable outrage, particularly among those who hadn’t seen it. However, watching the film in light of those controversies was a strange experience, as Joker carefully avoided wrestling with any of the tinderbox issues like race or gender tackled by its influences. The resulting film is curiously inert.
Despite the use of loaded terminology like “deplorables” and “ratfucker-in-chief,” even the villains’ motivations are relatively apolitical. The evil “elite” cabal led by Athena (Hilary Swank) is just targeting individuals who said mean things about them on social media following a hack. Their vengeance only resembles a right-wing conspiracy theory out of their own sense of dramatic irony.
The Hunt feels more comfortable going after the left than it does engaging with Trumpism, but even that feels incredibly superficial. The villains of The Hunt awkwardly apologize for gendering group nouns or blaming victims, while worrying about the “problematic” optics of an all-white victim pool. The closest thing The Hunt has to a coherent political point is, “Gee, aren’t some liberals annoying?” Which is fair, if shallow.
There are absolutely reasonable and substantive criticisms to be made of the political left. Get Out is a horror movie built around a particularly insidious strand of white liberal racism. Promising Young Woman reserves a strong skepticism of pseudo-feminist “nice guys” who performatively advocate for women’s rights and eagerly sing along to Paris Hilton. Even Knives Out is especially scornful of the hypocrisy of Meg Thrombey (Katherine Langford), who presents a liberal facade but is just as cynical as the rest of the family.
The Hunt does not do any of this. Instead, it offers cheap shots and broad asides to add a little flavor to a generic schlock-fest. The closest that The Hunt comes to making a political point is the very faint implication that the left has yet to come to terms with the political victory of Donald Trump, and that this failure will have very dire consequences for absolutely everybody involved.
This subtext is seeded only briefly, during a sequence when Crystal relates her mother’s variant of the classic Aesop fable about the hare and the box turtle, in which an arrogant and overconfident hare was defeated in a foot race by an adversary that it underestimated. Crystal’s mother adds her own twist to the tale, in which the angry hare avenges itself on the turtle and its family.
Does the hare represent the political left, who were so sure of Hillary Clinton’s victory and so devastated and angered by the electoral outcome? Does the hare represent the political right, the festering sense of outrage after years of being marginalized, ignored, and denigrated? It’s an important question, given how The Hunt returns to the imagery at the climax.
The Hunt is at least aware of the ambiguity. When Crystal finishes her story, her companion Don (Wayne Duvall) pauses to digest the fable. Finally, he asks the important question, “Are we the hare or the box turtle?” The film never bothers to answer that question, knowing that it might suggest a coherent political perspective.
The Hunt aspires for controversy. However, for controversy to be meaningful, it has to be about something. The Hunt tracks down nothing but empty controversy.