Travis Leamons // Film Critic
The great head coach John Wooden once remarked that the true test of a person’s character is what he does when no one is watching. Wise words were spoken at a time when it was easier to be indiscreet. In the age of social media, a person’s character can run amuck, shredding one’s reputation faster than the paper at Enron.
Character assassination is a small but pivotal part of Blumhouse’s controversial THE HUNT. Originally set to be released last September, Universal shelved it after the horrific mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso in early August. President Donald Trump publicly criticized it on social media, referring to something he hadn’t seen on Twitter as a movie made to “inflame and cause chaos.” Ruffle a few feathers? Fine. Cause chaos? What? Like JOKER did when it was released the week following THE HUNT’s initial release? Oh, that’s right. The fears that a man in clown makeup could inspire mass shooters resulted in the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time and a movie that racked up 11 Oscar nominations, winning two (including Joaquin Phoenix for Best Actor).
THE HUNT is not pariah moviemaking. This is small potatoes exploitation, fair and simple, with the added cache of being the most controversial movie from 2019 that nobody saw. Universal has teed this up in the marketing, making the studio nearly facile with its intent. Those expecting something utterly offense or political need not worry. THE HUNT runs on message leaks, butt-hurt accusations, and flared tempers. This story about liberal elitism hunting “deplorables” for sport is what everyone should’ve expected in the first place: HARD TARGET, but as a topically resonant grindhouse action with political correctness black humor. As a political zoo analogy, THE HUNT is armed donkeys shooting elephants to thin the herd, in how they interpret a more fair and balanced U.S. landscape.
Director Craig Zobel teams up again with Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (THE LEFTOVERS) with an eye-gouging battle royal where a dozen kidnapped men and women quickly find themselves being shot at from afar. We immediately try to ascertain who we think will be the core survivors. Ike Barinholtz, perhaps? Maybe, Emma Roberts? And, hey, isn’t that Earl’s brother (Ethan Suplee) from MY NAME IS EARL? The action is quick, the kills are ridiculously gruesome, and the tone is completely tongue in cheek. As the deplorables dwindle, we settle on Crystal (Betty Gilpin), a Mississippi woman that takes charge the moment she asks for a pack of smokes in a mom-and-pop store. Best known as Debbie Eagen on the Netflix series GLOW, Gilpin is sensational, thrown into the accidental heroine role, and totally owning it as a kick-ass broad with a military service record. As she continues to rack up kills, we flashback to see how this hunting game metastasized from an offhand joke.
When a group text leaks on the web, Reddit and other outlets perpetuate it as fact, it causes a domino effect in removing the top brass at a corporation. The joke then ricochets to become a reality. The out-of-work execs select their prey as if casting for a new reality series while drinking champagne and appropriating another’s culture. Whoops. So much for progressivism. Hilary Swank, the black comedy’s big-name star, doesn’t make her arrival until the final act. She’s every bit as terrific as Gilpin in a switchblade stilettos kind of way, and together they have a crackerjack fight that would make John Wick want to jot notes with a blood-caked pencil.
THE HUNT mildly entertains because its politically caustic premise is only a slight exaggeration. By taking the classic short story THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, Craig Zobel, Damon Lindelof, and Nick Cuse take pot-shots at both parties. The humor doesn’t always connect, but Betty Gilpin is sure to turn some heads when she isn’t rolling over them.
THE HUNT opens nationwide on Friday (3/13).