The Hunt review: Donald Trump got this sly satire all wrong

The Hunt review: Donald Trump got this sly satire all wrong
The Hunt review: Donald Trump got this sly satire all wrong

This action movie setting liberals against conservatives was initially pulled from release after being attacked by the President. But it’s smarter than its critics, writes Caryn James.

“Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables,” reads a text message from a wealthy man to his friends in The Hunt, a new film notorious for all the wrong reasons. The story is about rich liberals shooting and killing working-class conservatives for sport. Seriously? No. Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, The Hunt is a smart satire that uses genre tropes to explore volatile social issues.

More like this:
– Ten films to watch this March
– The films that defy censorship
– Is cinema at war with the rich?

Where Peele plays with horror to deal with race, The Hunt employs the elements of vigilante-action movies to create a sly, acerbic, fun-to-watch send-up of the political divide in America. With villains on both sides, the hunters call their prey “rednecks” and the prey say the pursuers are “godless elites”. Too bad acerbic satire isn’t what The Hunt became known for.

The film was scheduled to open in September 2019, but Universal Pictures paused its marketing campaign, including a trailer that focused on gunplay, after two mass shootings in the US, a decision that was responsible and commercially smart. What happened next was unreasonable and exploitative. Based on the trailer alone, pundits on the political right attacked the film for its supposedly leftist politics. Donald Trump railed against what he called “Liberal Hollywood” in an incendiary tweet that claimed, “The movie coming out is made to inflame and cause chaos.” So much for satire. The tone-deaf backlash was a symptom of the very thing The Hunt mocks: the ugly, narrow-minded divisiveness of politics today. Pulled from release the day after Trump’s tweet, the film is now back on, preceded by a new trailer that highlights its playful tone.

Crystal is a backwoods Rambo, outsmarting and outfighting everyone who threatens her

There was always good reason to trust the film’s approach. The screenplay is by Damon Lindelof, a creator of innovative, mind-bending series including Watchmen and The Leftovers, and Nick Cuse, who wrote for The Leftovers. The film signals its mordant tone right away, starting with that text message. Soon a group of friends are on a private jet drinking champagne while people in baseball caps and flannel shirts lie drugged on the floor. The action kicks in on the plane, with violence that is graphic but outlandishly comic. One of the liberals coolly uses her stiletto heel as a lethal weapon. Unlike in The Purge series, which takes too much glee in killing (The Hunt, The Purge and Peele’s films are all from Blumhouse Productions) the deaths here are always part of the over-the-top satire. Though if vigilante movies make you cringe, of course, you can stop right there, because the bodies begin piling up.

The Hunt review: Donald Trump got this sly satire all wrong View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The conservatives, strangers to each other, are unloaded in a broad green field, where a crate full of knives, handguns and assault weapons has been left for them to use in self-defence. Why not be sporting while you’re trying to wipe out the opposition? The hunted are picked off by bullets and arrows from unseen pursuers, as if this were The Hunger Games with a political edge. Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley and Ike Barinholtz play some of the prey. Betty Gilpin (from GLOW) is Crystal, who works at a car rental company, has a Southern twang, and emerges as the badass heroine, a one-woman army surprisingly great at shooting, stabbing and body-slamming. From the minute she escapes from the field and walks into Ma and Pop’s country store on a dirt road in Arkansas, she is a backwoods Rambo, outsmarting and outfighting everyone who threatens her.

The director, Craig Zobel, is known for indie dramas tackling hot-button issues, including Compliance, in which a restaurant manager is duped into strip-searching an employee. He also turns out to be an efficient action director, leaning into the genre’s swift pace and suspense. Even when the action is at its most ferocious, though, the dialogue carries an unforgiving theme: there are no political heroes here. The conservatives are sympathetic at first as the underdogs, but it turns out that each has an unsavoury past. Barinholtz’s unnamed character hatefully demonises liberals on social media. Gary (Ethan Suplee), who hosts a podcast, is a conspiracy theorist who tells Crystal that the government’s “deep state” orchestrated the hunt.

On the other side, Hilary Swank plays a powerful CEO who dismisses lower-class humans as animals, but her character is seen only from the back for much of the film. The other left-wing hunters are even more poorly defined, mocked for their political correctness, an all-too-easy target. We can root for Crystal because she is an enigma, apolitical and focused on survival. As the balance of power moves back and forth, and even to a refugee camp in another country, the film cleverly teases us as to what might be real – could Gary’s conspiracy theory be true? – and what might be a ploy in the game.

There is a long history of satires running into trouble because philistines took them seriously. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), an irreverent send-up of Bible movies, was picketed in the US, and banned in some European cities. A Clockwork Orange (1971) was pulled from UK theatres for decades after accusations of copycat killings and death threats against director Stanley Kubrick. And in 2014, The Interview, with Seth Rogen and James Franco as journalists interviewing a caricatured version of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, made the real Kim so angry that North Korea hacked Sony’s emails. The film, which is silly and funny, was dumped straight onto streaming platforms.

But the misguided reaction to The Hunt goes beyond ignoring its satiric tone. This film lands in a world flooded with nasty political discourse, flat-out lies and internet trolls, who range from small-time podcasters to the President of the United States. No wonder a film so clear-sighted about this moment’s cynicism and divisiveness also became its victim.

★★★☆☆

The Hunt is released today in the UK and Ireland, and on 13 March in the US.

Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.