My notes on The Hunt (2019)
Blumhouse scored a perhaps-unexpected franchise with the Purge films, which fuse gore-horror with social satire, but aren’t likely to repeat the trick with The Hunt … if only because the film became a weird political hot potato, shelved for a while after one of America’s regular mass shootings and tweeted about unhelpfully by Donald Trump. I wonder if the film – directed by Craig Zobel (Compliance, Z for Zachariah), from a script by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof – was tinkered-wth while it was held up in the pipeline before its fairly low-key release (in my local ‘plex, it was on a screen about a quarter of the size alotted to Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island) since the release version doesn’t quite dot all its is and cross its ts. The premise, which riffs on the Pizzagate kerfuffle, is amusing – what if there really were a ruthless liberal elite, politically correct in language but perfectly okay with murdering ‘deplorables’ in Count Zaroff fashion to let off steam?
The execution is surprisingly tricksy – in the traditional manner, a group of disparate people are drugged and wake up in a remote area where they find a big box full of weapons (and a pig in a shirt) and barely get a sense of what might be going on before they’re picked off one by one by the unseen hunters. For a few minutes, we follow blonde Emma Roberts – the most recognisable face in the crowd – but she gets sniped first, then other huntees – a gun nut (Ike Barinholtz), an older guy in a USMC cap (Wayne Duvall), a big game hunter (Walker Babington), a paranoid conspiracy theorist (Ethan Suplee), scowling female veteran Crystal (Betty Gilpin) – get scenes or moments to themselves as they flee, as if briefly auditioning for the gig of lead. As mandated in all these stories all the way back to The Most Dangerous Game, one of the prey will fight back against the hunters. In a nod to the forerunner of this sub-genre, one of the prey pack is a himself big game hunter – but that now makes him instantly hateful rather than the leading man material Joel McCrea was in 1932. Sniper fire and death traps whittle down the group rapidly, with some crassly gruesome gags, but many of the prey make it over a barbed wire fence to a nearby Mom and Pop store (Amy Madigan and Reed Birney are Mom and Pop) where they are told they are in Arkansas, though this turns out in a sly joke to be a rare exploitation movie shot in America but set in (presumably) Croatia.
As casualties pile up on both sides, Crystal emerges as the unlikely heroine (catch-phrase ‘you furked urp’) but also as not quite the right fit with the prey, who have seemingly been selected for insulting liberal sensibilities with their online postings. Gilpin, unrecognisable from her turn in The Grudge, is excellent as an unusual screen heroine, modelling a girl-mullet, cut-off shirt and permanently fed-up look. She is a walking rebuke to the wealthy smuggos by not fitting their stereotype of someone from her background – she has an argument with liberal dragon lady Athena Stone (Hilary Swank) about references to Animal Farm – but also side-eyes her fellow prey when they do or say anything embarrassingly Trumpian. Funniest of the deplorables is (Shut the F**k Up) Gary (Suplee), who keeps accusing folks of being crisis actors (‘they have crisis babies’) and whose rabid belief in something that started as a casual joke has actually brought it into being. Note Gilpin’s tiny reaction when the unselfaware Gary refers to the liberal elite’s targeting of ‘regular folks – you know, us’ … setting up a moment later when someone apparently neutral’s digging for a motive for all this gives the game away that this is supposed to be a harsh life lesson. Most of the killed-off folk have at least an implied backstory – photos establish them as anti-gay campaigners or pro-life picketers and the like – but a few don’t, suggesting trims have been made (at a guess, Roberts was supposed to be an Ivanka type but the film decided not to go there).
The script has a lot of smart, funny moments that skewer both sides: Swank delivering a monologue about grilled cheese sandwiches, a liberal woman sealing her fate by telling upper-hand-holding Crystal that she doesn’t believe she should be spared summary execution ‘just because you’re a girl’, the hunters employing a Dale Dye-like military trainer (Steve Mokate) who was advisor on Tears of the Sun (‘it was actually called that? It got released?’). As in the Purge films, the action is okay but often little more than that. This probably was the horror film America needed, and it’s entirely apt that it got turned on so savagely.