The Hunt is most notable for its cancellation and postponement, brought on by either mass shootings or the president’s tweets, depending on who you ask (in either case, it’s a decision the studio undoubtedly is regretting now). But now that it’s finally being released, does Craig Zobel’s violent satire live up to the controversy? Well, yes and no.
After a brief prologue, The Hunt kicks off in pulse-pounding fashion. Eight or so people wake up gagged in a field, then congregate at a large wooden crate that turns out to be full of weapons. Seconds later, members of the group are getting blown away by a distant sniper rifle. The rest scatter, most of them running headlong into deadly booby-traps. Those who survive the initial bloodbath make up our unlikely protagonists: conspiracy theory podcaster Gary (Ethan Suplee), senior veteran Don (Wayne Duvall), and coolheaded badass Crystal (Betty Gilpin). As they struggle to escape their pursuers, the entirely conservative group learns a shocking truth: they’re being hunted for sport by wealthy liberal elites.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Hunt is most certainly not a daring inversion of right-phobic horror movies like Red State or The Purge: Election Year; it hedges its bets far too often for that, taking care to ridicule both sides. Normally I might give such a choice credit for its nuance, but The Hunt is so overwhelmingly nuance-free that the approach can’t help but feel like playing it safe. A movie that went all-in on this premise and cast the conservatives as the clear-cut good guys would be more simplistic, but it would also be truly edgy, a quality The Hunt only dabbles in. Then again, Hollywood wouldn’t make that movie in a million years, so it’s a moot point. To be fair, The Hunt’s best moments do feel genuinely subversive, causing one to wonder how the hell it managed to get made in today’s risk-averse climate.
The Hunt’s pacing is too brisk to be called a disaster, but it’s definitely all over the place, jerking the plot forward in fits and starts. It’s the kind of movie that takes an unproductive ten-minute detour early on, then later kills off several important characters within minutes of one another. In its third act, the script resorts to exposition flashbacks which are entertaining and relevant but artlessly tossed into the greater story. The movie’s saving grace here is its buzzy energy, which keeps it from ever becoming boring.
This unevenness extends to the scene-to-scene quality of the movie. Some of the action sequences nail the gruesomely funny tone they’re shooting for, others fall awkwardly flat, but most wind up in a middle ground of diverting if not novel. The satire has the occasional inspired moment – the hunt’s origin, when revealed, is hilariously ironic – but it’s generally content to stick to the surface, especially in its treatment of the privileged villains, all of whom are so caricatured that it’s impossible for any of the movie’s jabs at them to cut too deep. Though the group’s bickering antics aren’t without their pleasures, they’re decidedly one-note. The only exception to this rule is Hilary Swank as Athena, the cabal’s ruthless mastermind. It helps that she gets the most to do of all the bad guys, but what really sells the character is Swank’s game performance. Clearly relishing the opportunity to slum it, she chews the scenery like a pro while still maintaining a modicum of believability.
But the movie’s MVP, and the deciding factor in this review being positive, is Betty Gilpin in one of the most entertaining performances in recent memory. She’s a revelation as Crystal, the Southern-twanged, ass-kicking heroine who doles out beatings and dry wit in equal measure. Gilpin never convinces as a flesh-and-blood human being, but that’s fine because she isn’t playing one. Like most things in The Hunt, her character could only exist in a movie, and Gilpin seizes the opportunity to give a performance that’s as artificial as it is fun to watch, carrying the movie with her amped-up charisma.
In truth, The Hunt is a pretty sloppy affair, but it’s lively and amusing enough for its shortcomings to be temporarily ignored, if not forgiven. It’s markedly less successful as a satire than it is as a splattery B-thriller, but at least it takes some ambitious risks in its attempt. If nothing else, it’s certainly different, and in these dreary times, that’s enough.