Exploitation movies are quick, dirty, gory fun. They’re also usually in questionable taste, which is part of their lowbrow entertainment value. You don’t watch VFW or Hobo with a Shotgun or even Brawl in Cell Block 99 for trenchant socio-political commentary. You watch these movies because nasty, well-executed action is thrilling to watch, and self-aware bad jokes can be fun to snicker at over pizza and beer. That’s pretty much the extent of their value, which is fine, and has its place.
The Hunt is a straight-up exploitation movie. For all the online hemming and hawing on both ends of the political spectrum about the people it might upset, viewers might be surprised to learn just how unsparing Craig Zobel’s movie (written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof) is of both the left and the right. Everyone’s the butt of the joke. Everyone is both the perpetrator and recipient of some good old fashioned movie violence. As fun as that is, however, this attempt to adapt The Most Dangerous Game makes some serious miscalculations about whether it’s the right time for this kind of movie.
Its original release last September was canceled in the wake of heated discourse and tragic national events. When it was rescheduled for March, Universal and Blumhouse released an altered trailer, intended to provide some context and calm potential viewers down a bit. The Hunt is still basically as originally advertised: a group of wealthy leftist elites capture a dozen blue collar working-class folks whom they’ve targeted, for various forms of general jerkdom or perceived slander. The captives are released into the wilds of Croatia and systematically hunted down by their captors. Of the group, Crystal (Betty Gilpin) quickly emerges as the most capable, fighting her way toward the leader of the rich hunters (Hilary Swank) to exact revenge.
Let’s start with the good: The Hunt’s action is satisfying, icky fun, punctuated with a sharp sense of humor that announces itself almost from the jump. Cuse and Lindelof’s script introduces characters and arcs that you’re certain will last the whole film, only to have them abruptly and hilariously cut off. The various entrapment scenarios the rich folks set up to capture their human prey are elaborately staged, and a good balance of revealing and disorienting. Gilpin also makes a great action heroine, capable and proactive but still relatable, a character who’s easy to root for.
The hallmarks of a satisfying exploitation movie are all there. If you can remove yourself enough from the divided nature of public discourse (and if you are, congratulations on achieving the impossible), The Hunt is a trashy good time. The problem is, most people occupy a place on the spectrum between liberal and conservative. While The Hunt is mostly interested in cathartically destroying people on the most obnoxiously extreme edges, it’s such an equal opportunity offender that no matter where you sit, something is bound to rub you the wrong way.
There’s also the very justifiable question about whether, in a public climate already defined by rage and violence (both implied and enacted), it’s really a good idea to present a situation where folks on the fringes are committing intense, targeted violence against each other. One might expect a little more depth or nuance from someone like Lindelof, who tackled subjects of cultural violence and injustice in Watchmen to great effect. Zobel is also a pretty thoughtful filmmaker; his Compliance and Z for Zachariah (not to mention his work directing Lindelof’s The Leftovers for HBO) play with interpersonal relationships, paranoia and assumed expectations. Neither of them bring that kind of consideration to this project, which is both surprising and disappointing.
In the end, the controversy surrounding The Hunt probably gave it more publicity and attention than it really deserves. It’s not trying to be anything more than an action-packed diversion with some cool effects and badass performances, which it achieves handily. Its vibe of “should we be doing this?” is totally in keeping with its genre relatives. It’s just that, given the timing, this one feels a little extra tasteless and inconsiderate.
“The Hunt” is in theaters tonight.