First Mass Shootings, Then A Pandemic: Is ‘The Hunt’ The Most Cursed Release Of All Time?

It’s a sad sign of the times that it’s hard now to even remember which mass shootings caused Universal to delay the release of The Hunt. For the record, it was the shootings at an El Paso Walmart and the others in Dayton, Ohio that killed 31 in August 2019 that bumped The Hunt from its original October 2019 release date. This delay pushed it… straight into a pandemic this weekend, when it becomes one of the last few films to sneak into theaters before the Corona Virus kills every other major release for months. Is The Hunt the most doomed release of all time? What is it with this movie?

Co-produced by Blumhouse a la The Invisible Man, The Hunt is a film about “elites” who hunt “deplorables” for sport, its plot oddly foreshadowing a controversy its own release would spark. When the elites in the film are accused of a Comet Ping Pong-esque conspiracy thanks to innocuous leaked texts, they decide to become what they were accused of and carry it out on those pushing said conspiracy. But before anyone could see it, Donald Trump accused the movie itself of being just such an elite plot. Which in turn provoked a corporate ass-covering exactly like the corporation depicted in the movie. Did The Hunt will this into existence?

The Hunt as a news story is everything The Hunt as a film aspires to be. Sadly, the film itself is almost entirely irrelevant.

Directed by Craig Zobel, The Hunt follows one group of strangers, some of whom look blue-collar and redneckish, as they wake up gagged in some kind of wilderness area. Just as they come upon a giant crate filled with weaponry (to make it more sporting, I suppose, the movie is never quite clear on this), snipers begin to pick them off one by one. The group is full of familiar faces, whom the film is almost spitefully unsentimental about killing off almost as soon as they’ve been introduced, like a Blumhouse echo of George RR Martin.

Eventually, Glow‘s Betty Gilpin — blue-collar cred established by her orange work shirt and name tag despite her pin-up curves — settles into the protagonist role. “Crystal” can make a compass out of a needle and a leaf and she’s too smart to fall for the elites’ tricks, like a fake gas station made up to look like Arkansas and an old pick-up truck rigged with C4. Said elites, meanwhile, led by stereotypical rich douche played by Glenn Howerton from It’s Always Sunny, act blasé while committing brutal violence, in between correcting each other’s pronouns and checking each other’s privilege — this in a massive game all apparently organized by the mysterious “Athena.” If you’re looking for a good satire of liberal language policing, try Bodied. The Hunt‘s version feels rote and forced, like the filmmakers stopped having fun the minute they had to convert this from elevator pitch into actual movie.

The Hunt is reasonably diverting as an action movie and Gilpin is weirdly effective as its drawling, inarticulate lady Schwarzenegger. There’s something fun about a survivalist hero with the verbal tics of actual survivalists, for whom the cool one-liners and allegorical talk we normally see from action heroes would seem like college boy preening. Imagine John McClane in Die Hard if he sounded like an actual cop.

The Hunt, however, fails miserably as the political satire it desperately wants to be. Crystal rolls her eyes at her fellow deplorables as they fulminate about sicko libs and crisis actors, while Howerton and co jadedly sigh about champagne and caviar and hunt ignorant shitkickers like animals. There’s a complete absence of character development. The characterizations begin and end at “deplorables” and “elites.” Which leaves Crystal as the relatable one, even though her politics are entirely opaque. There’s an air of “God I wish all these crazies would stop doing politics around me and let me live life” to The Hunt reminiscent of the darkest days of The Rally To Restore Sanity, a vaguely smug both-sidesism where political passion itself is positioned as oppression.

It’s hard to believe that The Hunt was written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, staff writer and creator, respectively, of The Leftovers and HBO’s Watchmen, probably the two most incisive and prescient depictions of the modern zeitgeist of the past decade. You’d think if anyone could do a political satire about the age of the extremely online, it’d be them. Instead, The Hunt‘s attempts at satire more resemble Knives Out‘s, where simply name-checking political meme-era — crisis actors, snowflakes, trolls, globalists — substitutes for any insight or coherent ideology. Moreover, both films seem to treat these meme drops like references that will make us happy in and of themselves. I don’t know about you, but I’m pre-emptively exhausted any time I hear the word “deplorable,” so if you’re going to do it you’d better reward my patience.

The Hunt, to put it bluntly, does not. Meeting the mysterious Athena, and her subsequent explanation of the hunt, which is wrapped in four levels of self-negating irony, explains little and does nothing to reward us for having bought this concept. Ah, so you’re saying America is a land of contrasts? Interesting.

First a mass shooting, then a pandemic. The Hunt may always warrant a footnote in the history of this time, but it won’t be because of anything in it.

‘The Hunt’ opens in theaters this weekend. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.