A movie that perplexes you or makes you uncomfortable isn’t necessarily morally complex; sometimes it’s just bad—or, more specifically, the result of a director and his writers’ failure to think through their ideas. The Hunt, a horror action-comedy whose September release was delayed in the wake of several mass shootings, as well as in response to complaints from the right-wing press about what they perceived as its contents, is a case in point: In its eagerness not to condemn any political view, its points are so blurry that you have no idea what it’s trying to say. Its meaning, to the degree that it has one, just slides off the screen in a jellied mess.
The premise is less provocative than its writers, Damon Lindelof (creator of Lost and Watchmen) and Nick Cuse (a writer on The Leftovers), and its director, Craig Zobel (Compliance), seem to think it is: A group of “deplorables”—dudes in trucker caps and rumpled flannel shirts, women in pastel exercise outfits, and so forth—are drugged and transported to a remote stretch of wilderness, where they’re hunted like animals by the “elites” who have brought them there. They’re not completely defenseless—the elites have been considerate enough to provide them with firearms and assorted other weapons. Still, they’re barely given a fighting chance, and the bodies pile up quickly, often suffering fates that are cruel in a grim, funny-ha-ha sort of way. (The Hunt comes to us by way of Blumhouse Productions, the company behind movies like The Purge and Get Out.) Many are gunned down or blown to bits before we even have any sense of who they are. When the credits roll, you’ll see that most of these characters haven’t even been given names—they’re referred to as “Yoga Pants” or “Staten Island,” a nod, supposedly, to the way the left so casually stereotypes the right.
The Hunt features a varied and potentially interesting ensemble cast, including Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Amy Madigan and the actor and singer Sturgill Simpson. But its only true standout is Betty Gilpin (of GLOW), as an armed-services veteran from Mississippi who works at a car-rental joint. Suddenly, she finds herself running for her life, with a bunch of devious liberals on her tail. Crystal knows how to get by, and how to outwit her pursuers; her combat skills are formidable, and her ball-busting charm is even greater. Gilpin prowls through the movie like the sole defender of common sense. The movie puts you on her side immediately, but everybody else is so ugly in spirit that there’s no contest.
The rednecks-on-the-run in The Hunt keep muttering something about a conspiracy theory called Manorgate, in which the rich, liberal elites get together to hunt down pesky red-staters. This crackpot-right theory is so crazy that it turns out to be true: The libs’ leader in Manorgate is a slick businesslady, Athena, who’s so angry with the opposing side that she sets out to make their worst, most nutso nightmares a reality. There’s no evidence that Athena actually possesses any idealistic liberal ideals: She’s just a person who lives on one of the coasts and who has a lot of money. Her followers include people who deplore the use of the N-word but who will also happily pay big money for the opportunity to hunt down other human beings. The movie may as well hang big “Hypocrite!” signs around their necks. Meanwhile, when Crystal and a fellow deplorable, credited as (Shut the F**k Up) Gary, come across a group of refugees on a train, including an infant, Gary—against Crystal’s protests—wants to shoot them all. They’re not real people, he tells her, they’re “crisis actors.” He knows this because he has a podcast.
Everybody in The Hunt, save Crystal, is a such a broadly drawn cartoon, with such horrible ideas about their fellow human beings, that you can’t wait for everyone to die, so you can go home. What, exactly, is the point? In a scene where Crystal fights back, with spirit, against her absurdly murderous lefty tormentors, the song on the soundtrack is the Raincoats’ great punk anthem of anti-consumerist paranoia “Fairytale in the Supermarket.” It’s an exhilarating song, ideal for getting audiences revved up—but for what? The Hunt’s release was delayed because pundits on right-wing web sites and on Fox News had seen the trailer (though not the movie) and were outraged over the idea of a film about lefties hunting down Trump supporters. “Globalist elites hunting deplorables sounds a little too real,” said Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, conveniently ignoring the fact that most of the people he’d consider “elites” are the same people he’d also call “snowflakes,” tree-hugger-types largely incapable of firing a gun even if they had to. The President got in on the act, claiming the film would “inflame and cause chaos.” Those complaints, and the tense national vibe after those early-August mass shootings, led Universal to put the movie’s release on hold.
The story of what happened to The Hunt is illustrative of one thing: It’s idiotic to come out against a movie before you’ve even seen how stupid and pointless it is. Zobel has made some engaging and thoughtful films in the past, particularly the 2015 dystopian science-fiction drama Z for Zachariah. But as social satire The Hunt is so aimless in its reasoning that it’s hard to even know whom it’s for. Who’s going to feel good about it, or even mad about it? Who’s even going to be entertained? In the interviews they’ve given in advance of the film’s release, the filmmakers have taken pains to say that The Hunt is a statement about how the factions in our very clearly divided country are incapable of listening to one another. It’s a beautiful sentiment on paper; it’s just not apparent in the movie. This is a “there’s blame on both sides” movie, one that sets up the conspiracy-obsessed right and the so-called politically correct snobs of the left as equal-opportunity offenders. But a movie where just about everybody is repellent isn’t daring; it’s a copout.