You’ve got to feel somewhat bad for Craig Zobel. Prior to his last film, Z for Zachariah (which, I should say upfront, I actually kind of liked), the dude seemed to be riding high — he’d made two really solid films, Great World of Sound and Compliance, which received critical acclaim from most quarters and was dipping his toes into television as well. But that film got delayed, to the point where it became somewhat of a meme between the cinema “intelligentsia” online, and came out to little fanfare. Now we have the curious case of The Hunt, a not-bad but pretty dumb movie that’s elevated by Zobel’s hand and a killer performance from Betty Gilpin.
You probably remember this movie from the controversy surrounding it last August, back when it was supposed to be released, in which our president trashed it on Twitter in the aftermath of a mass shooting and Universal quickly got terrified and, rightly or wrongly, pulled it from the schedule. You might also have confused it with Ready or Not, a similar film about a bunch of rich losers hunting down a blonde that escaped the president’s ire. Either way, months have passed, and it seems The Hunt has found itself out of the frying pan and into the fire, coming to theaters pretty much right before all theaters in the country may be shut down due to a pandemic. What great timing, huh?
The Hunt is yet another riff on the Most Dangerous Game formula, which we’ve seen come into greater and greater prominence in the last decade or two as we slide further and further into late capitalism — is it any wonder that the themes from a pre-code talking still resonant today, given that their times are linked by economic distress? Zobel’s film, penned by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof takes it further, imagining the victims as Red State “deplorables” who wake up in the middle of a field, gagged, and find themselves at the mercy of a group of rifle-toting liberal elites. Of course, we’re meant to see the humanity in both sides as well as enjoy their collapse into nihilism, and, despite a brief Psycho-like fake-out at the start, our main character Crystal (Gilpin), a laconic badass, begins putting the screws to them, and violence ensures. There’s a cute pig and some well-choreographed action.
A lot of this film’s issues can be laid at the foot of the writers, who, desp[ite having a germ of a decent idea, don’t really know how to make it work in the moment-to-moment. The Hunt works best when it’s not trying to make hoary “relevant” jokes about our current climate, often throwing around terms like “snowflakes” or whatnot that Lindelof and Cuse don’t necessarily know what they mean or how they’re used in online discourse. It’s overwritten to the point that one stops being able to suspend disbelief and starts directly interrogating the screenplay, imagining how it might look on the page. A few written gags do land quite well — there’s a moment when a conspiracy theorist and radio host has his worst fears confirmed — but for the most part, you’ll be wincing and cringing more than chuckling.
Thematically, The Hunt‘s got a serious case of “both-sidesism:” the conservative gags generally involve people shouting “fuck your feelings,” and the liberal ones have the hunters speculating about the racial optics of those they’re about to murder. It’s sub-Onion stuff, and the film’s wheels often spin in the mud when they focus too heavily on its themes. Lindelof’s a hell of a writer, as anybody who’s watched The Leftovers or Watchmen knows, but he feels somewhat disinterested here, content to shoot off broad and dumb jokes alongside banal political observations to fill out the 90-minute runtime. Yes, being online is bad — practically every person who is online agrees with that: you rarely see the most Twitter-literate praising the website, and they’re often the biggest critics of the company and their own media habits even if they’re trapped refreshing that goddamn site like Pavlovian zombies — and it rarely leads to good things.
Thankfully, Zobel did his best to undercut it in two key ways, and, as a result, The Hunt‘s always intersting. The first is the level of extremity on-screen — it’s gory as fuck, with a series of splatter-filled explosions and downright gruesome headshots that kick the film off and set the tone for what’s to come — and Gilpin’s casting. She is, to put it frankly, phenomenal here, and it’s a genuinely perfect melding between director and actor. See, Zobel’s a contemporary of the David Gordon Green and Jody Hill crew that came out of North Carolina some 20 years ago, and his sense of humor, in practice, is a lot closer to those two’s than it is to Lindelof and Cuse’s, relying on character and contrasting tone with material more so than “wordplay.”
Gilpin feels like she’s an Eastbound and Down character dropped into the middle of this nonsense, grunting and gritting through each new circumstance, suffering the fools that come into her midst with an unchanging frown. She’s capably badass, of course, and given the typical “Special Forces tough motherfucker backstory,” but her quiet mumbles and silent reactions are significantly more interesting than anything else here. There’s a moment where she explains to a soon-to-be-dead military contractor her motivations for continuing to do what she’s doing, and it’s genuinely funnier than the entirety of Ready or Not. It is a pleasure to watch her work, and if this damn pandemic prevents her from being elevated to the same memetic idolization by elements of the Extremely Online Film Community that Samara Weaving received last summer.
So, is it worth catching the coronavirus to trek out and see The Hunt this weekend? No, not really. Is it worth renting whenever it hits video-on-demand or streaming whenever it hits your preferred services? Yeah, actually. Betty Gilpin’s work here is more than enough justification for an impulse buy, and you might be surprised by how much fun you have overall, regardless of what side of our stupid political divide you fall on. But, you know what you can do to help your own sanity, right now? Log off. Go take a walk. Spend some time with your pets and your family. Eat a delicious snack. It’ll be there in a couple of weeks.