When The Hunt was pulled from Universal’s release schedule in September of last year, none of the various outraged parties had seen a single minute of the film they were so harshly judging. If they had, they might not have been so upset about the movie’s release, not because it’s an intelligent or sensitive political satire, but because it’s almost entirely devoid of meaningful content. The movie about a group of wealthy liberals rounding up and hunting “deplorables” (the word that created so much initial controversy) just slaps a bunch of political buzzwords on top of a poorly constructed thriller, relying on the shock value of terms like “cuck” and “snowflake” and “privilege” to stand in for any kind of clever insight.
On the thriller side, The Hunt also relies on the shock value of extreme gore to stand in for suspense or excitement, but even the nasty viscera flying across the screen loses its impact quickly. It’s never a mystery what’s happening or why, and there are no surprising plot twists or sudden reversals. Even on a moment-to-moment level, the filmmakers (including director Craig Zobel and writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse) fail to build basic tension, often undercutting the potential for tense moments by throwing in a series of talking points to demonstrate how self-aware they are about the political divide in America. The momentum leading up to the climactic battle stops dead for at least 10 minutes for a series of expository flashbacks filling in narrative gaps that the audience has already easily grasped.
That last part is perhaps no surprise coming from Lindelof, who relied heavily on the character-defining flashback device for his landmark TV series Lost. Like Lost, The Hunt brings together a group of strangers who find themselves in an unfamiliar, dangerous place, and it even introduces the hunt’s targets with a close-up of one waking up in a shot familiar from more than a few Lost episodes. That character, along with a handful of other potential protagonists, gets dispatched quickly, before the movie settles on surprisingly resourceful car-rental agent (and military veteran) Crystal (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) as its main character.
Crystal is far more adept at survival than her fellow red-state abductees, and she’s a more fearsome warrior than nearly all of the limousine liberals who are hunting her down. She’s easy to root for, in part because the filmmakers place her above the partisan political sniping. She doesn’t take the bait when her fellow targets talk about Sean Hannity and the deep state, and she doesn’t make any concessions to the exaggerated faux-progressive perspectives of her attackers. She just wants to stay alive and take out the people responsible.
Gilpin’s excellent performance is pretty much the only good thing about The Hunt, and her portrayal of Crystal’s steely resolve, as well as her proficiency in fight sequences, make her a great candidate for an action hero in a better movie. As the main villain, Hilary Swank gets in a few decent nasty digs, but her appearance is pointlessly treated like a huge reveal, even though it doesn’t shift the plot in any new direction. The rest of the characters on both sides are pretty much just cannon fodder, with recognizable faces including Emma Roberts, Glenn Howerton and This Is Us’ Justin Hartley just popping in briefly.
Take out the smug political grandstanding, and The Hunt might have been a passable B-level thriller, a riff on the durable concept of The Most Dangerous Game, with some amusingly ridiculous characters and kills. But the only reason the movie even exists is its emptily provocative hook, and the story relies so heavily on that idea that it doesn’t leave room for anything else.