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Betty Gilpin

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

“Whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart …”  

The Hunt follows “elitist snowflakes” stalking “deplorables” on a sprawling compound in Croatia. In this film, both groups have earned the quotes in one way or another. The rich are insufferable and entitled on a whole new level; the rednecks behave in the way they are most often caricatured. It is hard to label the film: satire, horror, action thriller, or political commentary. All are relevant but not one fully encompasses the frenzied whole. It is also hyperviolent, bloody, frequently sadistic, but, more often than not, engaging.  

Co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof and directed by Craig Zobel, The Hunt’s release was scheduled for September 2019 but was postponed because of mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. It was finally released in theaters in early March; when the theaters were closed, it was quickly offered on pay-per-view sites.

This is not the first movie to follow humans hunting humans. Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game was first adapted for film in 1932. It has been seen in about a dozen incarnations over the years. The Hunt’s strong political thread separates it from many of its predecessors.

A group of captives from various parts of the United States are dropped into a forest where, upon their release, the majority are slaughtered in a scene reminiscent of The Hunger Games:  bullets, landmines, arrows, a pit with spikes, etc. Those who escape are then hunted down in various ways throughout the next hour.  Playing in the background is the discussion of Manorgate, a conspiracy theory that seems to be coming true for these targets: the left-wing rich tracking the poor for sport.

The film spends little time developing character but is more concerned with the broad strokes, moving swiftly through a range of vicious encounters. Late in the film, a flashback explains but in no way attempts to justify the actions of the privileged. Centering on a leaked text introduced in the beginning, it is the impetus for the events, leading to the question of motivation versus wish fulfillment. This is part of the all-over and over-the-top nature of the entire story.

The cast makes the most of the chaos. The dark humor surfaces in unexpected times, including Amy Madigan and Reed Birney’s argument over an issues of political correctness as they clean-up and store bodies. It is either hilarious or horrifying, depending on the point-of-view. Perhaps, it is both.

Most of the characters are either given first names or simple monikers. For example, Emma Roberts is billed as “Yoga Pants.” Her quick dispatch is enough reason not to go further into her character. Justin Hartley (Kevin of television’s This Is Us) also disappears early on.  People do come and go very quickly here and all in unpleasant circumstances.

The stand-out is Betty Gilpin as Crystal Creasey, one of the pursued, who proves to be a match for her assailants at every step and turn. Gilpin (best known as Debbie “Liberty Bell” Eagan on the Neflix series GLOW) is extraordinary. She makes Crystal quirky and mannered, yet entirely believable. In the most powerful and disturbing moment, she retells the story of the tortoise and the hare with a brutal and unexpected outcome. Her delivery is both painful and chilling. It also comes full circle at the end.

The climax is a showdown between Crystal and the driving force behind the Hunt, Athena Stone (an unbridled Hilary Swank). It could be an example of female empowerment or could easily just be plain exploitation. Either way, it is an all-out brawl of epic proportions.

“Whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots pretending to be smart …” states Crystal. As to who are the heroes and who are the villains, this is left in a strange ambivalence. Certainly, many will see the film as a portrait of the underlying divide between the left and the right. Others will see it as a blood-drenched spectacle. With its extreme violence and twisted politics, ultimately, The Hunt is an equal opportunity offender.

Rated R, The Hunt is now streaming on demand.