Review: ‘The Hunt,’ starring Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Betty Gilpin in “The Hunt” (Photo by Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)

“The Hunt”

Directed by Craig Zobel

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in a remote part of Croatia, which is disguised as the United States, the satirical horror film “The Hunt” has a predominantly white cast of characters portraying wealthy, middle-class and working-class people.

Culture Clash: Wealthy liberal elitists kidnap, hunt and kill non-wealthy conservatives who believe in conspiracy theories.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people who like horror movies to have an underlying social message, but “The Hunt” doesn’t live up to its controversial hype and is just another mediocre violent movie with a high body count.

Vince Pisani, Hilary Swank, Teri Wyble and Hannah Alline in “The Hunt” (Photo by Patti Perret/Universal Pictures)

The irony about the controversy that postponed the release of the horror flick “The Hunt” is that the movie is a scathing commentary about wanting to permanently silence people, based on assumptions about certain people’s intentions. That’s exactly what happened to “The Hunt,” when numerous people, who never saw the movie, protested by saying that the film glorifies murder and was too dangerous to ever be released.

In response, Universal Pictures, which had originally scheduled “The Hunt” for release in September 2019, pulled the movie from its schedule, before releasing the film six months later. And although some things could have been edited out of the film to make it less controversial—we might never know because the movie wasn’t screened for the media when the September 2019 release was cancelled—what did make it into the film shows that the controversy was much ado about nothing.

The controversy was fueled by concerns that “The Hunt” (which is about a group of people killing another group of people) was not an appropriate movie to release at a time when there were mass shootings in America. But the reality is that most horror movies are usually violent and are about people getting murdered. Violence has been a part of most horror movies, long before there was an increase in gun violence and mass shootings in the real world.

The reason for the protests against “The Hunt” go much deeper than concerns about inspiring copycat killings, because “The Hunt” was perceived as a politically charged film commenting on the divide between liberals and conservatives in America. How these two opposite groups would be portrayed in the movie was perhaps scarier or more offensive to a lot of the protesters than any of the gory violence that “The Hunt” was sure to depict. (And in case anyone was wondering, all the hunters and hunted in the movie are white Americans, so the movie avoids any racist or xenophobic controversy.)

It turns out that it was a mistake to automatically think that “The Hunt” glorifies liberals and demonizes conservatives. The liberals (the hunters) are actually the worst characters in the film (because they’re murderers), while the conservatives (the hunted) don’t really spout any of the narrow-minded, bigoted views in the movie that they allegedly have. The hunted people are too busy trying to survive the violent attacks that they get almost immediately after waking up bound and gagged in a remote field. And one of the hunted ends up being the movie’s main hero who fights back.

Her name is Crystal (played by Betty Gilpin), who’s a car-rental employee, and her spotlight as the movie’s toughest badass in the hunted group doesn’t come until about 25 minutes into the movie. But before then, at the beginning of the movie, viewers see someone’s phone with the text-message conversation that sets in motion this whole idea of “hunting conservatives.”

One of the text messages said that there would be “nothing better than going out to the manor and slaughtering a bunch of deplorables.”  For people who didn’t follow the U.S. presidential race in 2016, the “deplorables” word refers to a controversial September 2016 speech that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton made when she said: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.”

On a private plane, viewers see some of the people who were part of the text conversation. They’re fussy, snobbish (such as when they treat the flight attendant like she’s an idiot), and try to outdo each other in political correctness when they talk about social issues. Their extreme “wokeness” is obviously a parody.

But there’s some truth in the satire, such as in the way one of the pretentious elitists interrogates the flight attendant over the ingredients of his meal, to give the impression that he’s extremely concerned about the environment. And yet, he doesn’t see the irony that flying on a private jet is most definitely not an environmentally responsible thing to do.

The airplane crew members are oblivious to the sinister nature of the trip until a heavyset guy in a flannel shirt staggers out into the cabin area. The elitists panic and say that he wasn’t supposed to be awake yet, he’s called a “redneck,” and he’s dealt with in a very violent way. The person who’s the mastermind of this trip then shows herself: Her name is Athena (played by Hilary Swank), and it’s clear that she’s a ruthless psycho who can’t wait for the hunt to begin.

The hunted people have been drugged and kidnapped from various parts of the United States. (The druggings and kidnappings are mentioned, but not shown, in the movie.) By the time the hunted people have woken up bound and gagged in a remote open field, it doesn’t take long before they’re being shot at repeatedly by the hunters. The hunted people later find out that they’re not in the United States, as they assumed, but have been taken to a remote part of Croatia, for reasons that are explained in a certain part of the story. (The movie was actually filmed in Louisiana.)

One of the hunted is a nameless young woman (played by Emma Roberts) with big blonde hair and pastel blue athleisure wear, looking like someone’s idea of what a Fox News anchor would be like at home. She manages to free herself from her bindings, and she finds a key to unlock the gags that they’re wearing. Eventually, everyone gets free of their bindings and gags.

And then the hunted find a giant locked crate in the middle of the field, which is pried open to reveal a live pig (which viewers find out later is named Wilbur, because the movie has multiple references to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”) and an arsenal for them to use to defend themselves. The arsenal is a large variety, including samurai swords, Smith & Wesson firearms and fully automatic military-grade weapons. Meanwhile, Crystal is shown briefly by herself making a compass out of a leaf and a straight pin.

The hunted, who are mostly nameless in the movie, includes an options trader (played by Ike Barinholtz), who’s originally from New York’s Staten Island; a podcast host (played by Ethan Suplee); and various people who look like stereotypical “rednecks,” by wearing flannel shirts or outfits that look like they’re about to go fishing and, ironically, hunting.

The hunters are all dressed in luxury designer clothes. They’ve also hired a military-trained firearms expert named Sgt. Dale (played by Steve Mokate), who acts as their consultant for this killing spree. The details about who these hunters are and why they decided to participate in this massacre are revealed later in the story.

“The Hunt” (which was written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, who’ve worked together on the HBO shows “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen”) constantly skewers the elitist “liberal” views of the hunters. In one scene, two of the hunters debate over whether or not they should have included politically conservative people of color in the all-white group of targets because they need to have “diversity.”

In another scene, one of the hunters is wearing a Japanese-style robe, and  one of the cohorts makes this remark: “Is that a kimono? That’s cultural appropriation.” And as one of the hunters gasses a victim, he says to the person he’s killing: “And for the record, climate change is real.” These jokes are meant to be clever, but they wear thin after a while because the tone of the movie is so uneven.

On the one hand, “The Hunt” wants to be a biting social commentary on the destructive hatred that can arise from extreme political differences. On the other hand, the commentary is undermined by the slapstick comedy in much of the film, whose violence is almost cartoonish.

The big showdown at the end of “The Hunt” is especially ridiculous, as the people involved suddenly have superhuman-like stunt skills and recover from injuries so quickly and unrealistically, that it takes away the humanity that’s necessary for a story like this to work well. In the end, “The Hunt” is a lot like the self-righteous political blowhards that the movie intends to spoof—there’s a lot more bark than there is bite.

Universal Pictures released “The Hunt” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the VOD release of “The Hunt” to March 20, 2020.