The best thing that ever happened to the underwhelming genre exercise that is “The Hunt” was Universal’s decision to cancel its planned September 2019 release in the face of protests about its putative “elites hunt down deplorables” plotline.
For one thing the delay until now gave the studio’s publicity team the opportunity to craft a crackerjack marketing campaign with the tagline “The Most Talked About Movie of the Year Is One That No One’s Actually Seen,” a promotion that has more going for it than the actual film.
More than that, the delay disguised that this middling film is less transgressive and more by the numbers than it would have you believe.
Written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (whose television collaborations include HBO’s “The Leftovers” and “Watchmen”) and directed by Craig Zobel, “The Hunt” lacks the courage of its presumed convictions, displaying no more than a determination to make as much cash as possible by exploiting national divisions less covetous individuals are despairing of rather than monetizing.
Toothless and obvious as a satire, “The Hunt” does not even play fair in terms of the humans hunting humans theme that began in film with 1932’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” which shared some cast, crew and RKO sets with the legendary “King Kong.”
Attempting to offend no one on either side (hey, it’s all about the Benjamins), the pretend class warfare storyline actually flees from the notion of people being hunted down because of their political beliefs: When push comes to shove (spoiler alert) the hunters are given a specific personal revenge motive for their actions.
Bowing to no one in its determination to bring comforting caricatures to the screen, “The Hunt’s” proper action (following an enigmatic exchange of Tweets) begins on a private jet filled with snobbish, arrogant elites making snide comments about caviar and Champagne.
After a brief but ghoulish interlude (a harbinger of the film’s relentless passion for Grand Guignol style gore) involving a stiletto heel (use your imagination), “The Hunt” gets down to business in a deceptively green and tranquil rural area.
There a nondescript group of a dozen people awake from sleep (it turns out they’ve been drugged in various parts of the U.S.) to find themselves with locked gags on their mouths. Keys to these soon materialize, as do a wide variety of weapons, and then all hell breaks out.
Unseen assailants strafe these folks with automatic weapons fire, bombard them with arrows and place deadly booby traps in their paths. Don’t get too attached to anyone you see, “The Hunt” is one of those movies that thinks it’s hip to kill off anyone we form the slightest attachment to.
Gradually it becomes clear — and not just because one hefty individual wears an “Airborn” cap — that these folks all share a red state point of view.
It’s their language that gives them away, as Cuse and Lindelof’s script name-checks everything from the concepts of stand your ground, deep state and crisis actors to the Fox News broadcasts of Sean Hannity.
More than that, several of these folks have heard of a shadowy scandal called Manorgate, wherein wealthy liberals hunt down “deplorables” for sport. Hmm….
Once we spend quality time with members of “The Hunt’s” elite, led by the aptly named Athena (Hilary Swank), they turn out to be way more moronic and insufferable than the red staters, boasting of Ava DuVernay liking one of their social media posts and being overly concerned with politically correct language.
Fortunately, there turns out to be one person in the film that a desperate audience can attach itself to, and that would be the intrepid Crystal (Betty Gilpin, Emmy nominated for Netflix’s “Glow”).
A Mississippi native with the accent to prove it, Crystal is part of the red state group, but she is so determinedly nonpolitical she insists on it twice (just in case the audience missed it the first time around). More combat ready than a squad of Navy SEALs, Crystal is all about survival.
If you think this film is headed for a showdown between Athena and Crystal, you get an exploitation film gold medal with a Roger Corman cluster. Little is unexpected in “The Hunt,” including its reminder — as if we needed reminding — of the notion attributed to H.L. Mencken that “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Indeed.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: In general release