Last summer, even before the public had gotten a chance to see it, humans-hunting-humans thriller “The Hunt” became a target for pundits on both sides of the gun control debate, when mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, prompted critics to consider the media’s role in glorifying violence. In response, Universal ripped director Craig Zobel’s movie from its Sept. 27 release date and rescheduled the thriller for spring 2020, making room for national mourning in the wake of the horrific events, only to turn around and use the controversy as an unconventional marketing hook.
While not nearly as incendiary as the early coverage made it out to be, “The Hunt” gives skeptics ample ammunition to condemn this twisted riff on “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which a posse of heavily armed liberal elites get carried away exercising their Second Amendment rights against a dozen “deplorables” — as the hunters label their prey, adopting Hillary Clinton’s dismissive, dehumanizing term for the “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” contingent whose fringe beliefs have found purchase with President Trump. No matter who you ask, the “right to bear arms” was never intended as justification for Americans to turn their guns against those they disagree with, whereas that’s the premise from which “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof and co-writer Nick Cuse depart here — partisan politics taken to their most irreconcilable extremes — as Zobel proves just the director to execute such a tight, well-oiled shock-a-thon.
Sure enough, Zobel, Lindelof and producer Jason Blum (riding high on last month’s “The Invisible Man”) have wrought a gory, hard-R exploitation movie masquerading as political satire, one that takes unseemly delight in dispatching yahoos on either end of the spectrum via shotgun, crossbow, hand grenade and all manner of hastily improvised weapons. The words “trigger warning” may not have been invented with “The Hunt” in mind, but they’ve seldom seemed more apt in describing a film that stops just shy of fomenting civil war as it pits Left against Right, Blue (bloods) against Red (necks), in a bloody battle royale that reduces both sides to ridiculous caricatures.
And yet, “The Hunt” is a good deal smarter — and no more outrageous — than most studio horror films, while its political angle at least encourages debate, suggesting that there’s more to this hot potato than mere provocation. Let’s assume we can all agree that there’s too much violence in American movies today. The danger of “The Hunt” isn’t that the project will inspire copycat behavior (the premise is too far-fetched for that), but rather that it drives a recklessly combustible wedge into the tinderbox of extreme partisanship, creating a false equivalency between, say, Whole Foods-shopping white-collar liberals and racist, conspiracy-minded right-wingers.
Back in August 2017, two years before the shootings that put heat on “The Hunt,” Trump sent a troubling message to the whole country when he responded to a murder at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., by insisting that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Zobel and Lindelof explore the opposite view: namely, that the actions and opinions of the two sides can be equally deplorable.
There are no good guys in “The Hunt,” just hunters and hunted, in which both parties are played by character actors whom viewers might recognize from TV. A few have slightly higher profiles (the lefties are led by a lunatic named Athena, stunt-cast with Hilary Swank), although the movie establishes early on that off-screen status does not confer greater survivability. One of the film’s pranks is to surprise audiences with cleverly timed and diabolically creative “kills” whenever possible, and more than once, faces you may recognize explode right before your eyes, all but splattering the camera in the process. It’s revolting, sure, but nowhere near as upsetting as the “torture porn” genre that preceded Blumhouse’s entry into the horror arena and, frankly, far less offensive than the psychological violence perpetrated by Zobel’s 2012 indie “Compliance,” in which a faceless caller, claiming to be a police officer, convinces a fast-food manager to detain and degrade one of her employees.
Zobel has directed just one feature since then, “Z for Zachariah,” focusing instead on prestige TV, and it’s clear from an early scene aboard a private jet en route to the Manor, where Athena and her guests plan to do their hunting, that the practice has honed his ability to balance between squirm-inducing dialogue and high-stakes suspense. Meanwhile, the film’s plotting is pure Lindelof, who keeps us guessing by dropping clues to “Manorgate,” as the conspiracy surrounding Athena’s activities is referred to among nut-job bloggers like Gary (Ethan Suplee) and Don (Wayne Duvall), only to reveal a more elaborate program than even they could have imagined.
This much “The Hunt” establishes early: Roughly a dozen deplorables (again, the film’s word for them, conveyed via an on-screen text conversation that goes viral among the same network that gave credibility to Pizzagate, prompting a vigilante to take action) are drugged and kidnapped from around the country and flown out to an undisclosed location (not at all where they think). They come to in the middle of a field, where an ominous crate sits. Little by little, using what’s implied to be their limited intellect, they manage to unlock their bite harnesses (a torture porn touch, to be sure) and arm themselves, but it’s not until their unseen hosts start shooting that they put two and two together.
Although the liberals may have the upper hand at first, they’re not any smarter than their quarry, and the movie hooks us by suggesting anything can happen, and following through on that promise with a series of inventive booby traps. If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when someone steps on a mine or lands face up in a Viet Cong-style punji trap, Zobel and his visual effects team have answers, relying on a graphic mix of CG and practical gore effects to turn such preposterous situations into genuinely startling moments.
Naturally, the project recalls Jordan Peele’s recent “Get Out,” which implicated well-mannered white people in a nefarious plot to steal the brains and skills of unsuspecting African Americans, as well as 1995’s early Cameron Diaz starrer “The Last Supper,” wherein a group of liberals lured contemptible conservatives to dinner, only to poison them when they refused to see reason. (There’s also a soupçon of “MADtv” star Ike Barinholtz’s irreconcilable-differences satire “The Oath,” so it’s fitting that he should appear as one of the hunted here.) But none of those movies took its premise nearly as deep into the realm of horror as Lindelof and Zobel do here, which is the potential advantage of a film that’s rather anemic in its social commentary — there’s not much depth beyond such easy punchlines as a self-hating liberal saying, “White people, we’re the f—in’ worst” — but that delivers on the visceral thrills of trying to survive a rigged game.
As the umpteenth variation on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” however, “The Hunt” is one of the most effective executions yet (it surpasses the Cannes-laureled “Bacurau,” in theaters now, but drags along too much baggage to best last year’s sleeper-hit “Ready or Not”). Regardless of one’s personal political affiliations, it’s hard not to root for the victims here, and one quickly distinguishes herself from the pack of “Deliverance”-style caricatures: Crystal May Creesy (Betty Gilpin of “Glow”), a MacGyver-skilled military veteran who served in Afghanistan and whose distrust of any and everyone makes her uniquely suited for a final showdown with Athena.
After all the buildup, that scene inevitably disappoints in its attempt to explain its own mythology, though the well-matched womano a womano confrontation between Gilpin and Swank is worth the price of admission. Culturally, it does no one any good to stoke discord between two contentious parties, but when the conflict reduces to one-on-one — and “The Hunt” stops pretending to be a parable about modern politics — it’s easy to appreciate the efficient 90-minute horror-fantasy for what it is: not a model for violent behavior in the real world, but an extreme outlet for pent-up frustrations on both sides.