“The Hunt” may be new and controversial, but stories about humans hunting humans for sport have been around since, at the very least, Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” and they’ve pretty much always been used to explore the evils of one form of dehumanization or another.
It’s not supposed to be thrilling to watch a rich psychopath kill poor people. It’s supposed to be a thrill to watch the hunted turn on the hunter. The hunter, in simple terms, is always the a-hole.
Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt” is a little more complex than that, but it’s still a raucous, funny, ultraviolent exploitation thriller about people trying to kill each other. Betty Gilpin, Ike Barinholtz and Emma Roberts star as conservatives who suddenly wake up in a forest with a box full of weapons awaiting them in the middle of a field. No sooner do they arm themselves than the bullets start flying, and they realize that the stories of “Manorgate” are very, very real.
No, you didn’t miss a meme: “Manorgate,” in this movie’s slightly alternate universe, is a right-wing conspiracy theory that claims rich liberals are kidnapping conservatives, letting them loose in a large manor, and hunting them for sport. To the potential victims of “The Hunt,” this predicament is harrowing but proves, at the very least, that every single horrible thing they ever believed about liberal America is true (i.e. it’s comprised entirely of condescending, amoral hypocrites who desperately need to be stopped for the good of the nation).
But as we quickly learn, once we start spending time with the hunters in this horrifying hunt, the liberals think the exact same thing about their victims. Practically everyone in “The Hunt” believes the absolute worst about their political opponents. Misinformation has run rampant. Now everybody hates each other to the extent that something that should be preposterous, like “Manorgate,” has actually happened.
Zobel’s film hates the condescending worldview of its characters with a fiery, unmistakable passion. Practically every character in “The Hunt” lets their personal sense of moral superiority turn them into, if not a monster, then at least an unlikable jerk. So although the heroes of “The Hunt” are the conservatives who turn the violence back on the oppressors, and kill those rich liberal a-holes at the center of this nightmare storyline, almost nobody seems like a decent human being. Practically everyone has let partisan politics, political echo chambers, social media and personal bias turn them into a walking, talking internet troll.
Everyone, that is, except for a woman named Crystal. As played by Gilpin, Crystal is the only person who wakes up in Manorgate and doesn’t talk about how it justifies her worldview. She just gets up, gets armed, and spends the rest of the film trying to find a pack of cigarettes (harder than it sounds) and killing everybody who stands in her way. Crystal has clearly received survival and weapons training, and in real-world situations, and she has clearly come out the other end of that experience with lots of personal baggage.
Gilpin’s performance in “The Hunt” is nothing less than instantly iconic. The actor is not content to let Crystal be a stoic, mysterious badass: She fills every scene with running commentary. Gilpin’s expressions and, more importantly, her bizarre high-pitched sound effects add vital objectivity and absurdity to Zobel’s satire. It’s as though she left Earth to fight alien xenomorphs 20 years ago and just now returned, found out about Twitter, scanned it for about five minutes, and decided everyone has gone stupid in her absence.
Gilpin gives a genuinely masterful comic performance, a seriously cool action performance, and — when we finally learn a little about her — she also reveals that Crystal is a surprisingly rich and nuanced individual. If there was any justice in Hollywood, she’d have an Oscar campaign at the end of the year.
The rest of “The Hunt” is filled with broad caricatures, courtesy of screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen”), but that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. They’re pretty much all going to die horrible deaths, so they need to be cartoon characters if the movie is going to stay funny. Zobel keeps the gore lurid but ridiculous, making it extremely difficult to mistake “The Hunt” for a glorification of violent behavior. People get blown up and stabbed and still have funny things to say afterwards. It’s full of exciting action, but the tone is closer to a Monty Python routine than it is to “Surviving the Game.”
Funnily enough, the cinematography by Darran Tiernan (“Star Trek: Picard”) is perhaps the most grounded element of “The Hunt.” Tiernan’s understated lighting and framing provides a vital counterpoint to the film’s absurdity, because it allows us, for brief moments, to take the story seriously, before the next bizarre plot point, over-the-top killing or acerbic line of dialogue shocks us back into the satire.
It’s hard to say who “The Hunt” is made for, but only because we’re so used to films being made either for one side, the other, or for folks trying to turn off their brains. Zobel’s film grapples directly with the political spectrum and uses everything we love and hate about each other as fodder for humor and horror.
It’s confrontation as a form of catharsis, the exact opposite of escapist entertainment. But perhaps, if everybody in the audience can accept occasionally being the brunt of the joke, it can have the exact same effect, giving us what we don’t know we needed instead of what we asked for but could easily do without.