Craig Zobel’s The Hunt purports to be a satire, but I am unconvinced its makers know precisely what they are satirising. The film begins with a very familiar Most Dangerous Game set-up: a group of kidnapped strangers wake up together in a field and find themselves being hunted for sport. Any further discussion on the nuances within this particular retread require going into some of The Hunt‘s twists and turns, so if you think you might want to head into this bloody exercise in over-the-top violence cold then stop reading now and come back once you are done.
Any number of similar texts have been made in the past that see poor people be slaughtered for the amusement of the rich, whether that’s in The Hunger Games, Hard Target, Bacurau, The Running Man, Ready or Not – you get the idea. This is such a well-mined trope because it is such a bluntly efficient way to represent the manner in which the real-life ruling class exists through the exploitation of the working classes. At first The Hunt seems to be replaying an identical commentary, until it is revealed that the hunted are working class people with right-wing political viewers and the hunters are the sort of ‘liberal elite’ wealthy left-wing types so aggressively used in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the 21st century Republican party.
It is a bold concept for a violent thriller, and the film absolutely opens itself to richly fertile ground. There is plenty about the left wing of American politics that is ripe for mockery, and it would be a bold move for a feature film to satirise such issues via this kind of ridiculously exaggerated hunting exercise. Sadly as soon as the film reveals its set-up, it immediately begins walking it back to safe territory. By adopting an even-handed style of social commentary, The Hunt winds up skewering and defending both sides of politics at the same. The result is a film that mocks everything and nothing, and ultimately makes no worthwhile comment at all.
Protagonist Crystal May Creasey (Betty Gilpin) seems like a conspiracy theory-believing redneck, until it is revealed there has been a case of mistaken identity, and she is not a credulous Trumpist at all. On the opposite side, villain Athena Stone (Hilary Swank) seems like a deranged so-called “social justice warrior”, until it is revealed she and her co-conspirators are taking revenge on having their careers destroyed by the right. Attempts to mock the left winds up feeling like the film is okay with racism. Attempts to show a more believable right still manage to make the relevant characters seem like credulous idiots.
Ultimately the key enjoyment of The Hunt is simply in watching the standard ‘dangerous game’ play out with a gleefully excessive amount of shock and gore. People are stabbed, poisoned, blown up, peppered with arrows, and run over with cars. There are liberal amounts of blood, and a extreme sense of the absurd. Betty Gilpin does a truly wonderful job as a new action hero, and Swank – almost criminally underused – makes for a great villain. There is a lot of silly fun to be had with The Hunt, but its pretensions to social commentary are an unmitigated failure. It is enjoyable to an extent, but the disappointment stretches further.