Inflammatory ‘The Hunt’ Delivers Mere Sparks

Horror movie specialist Blumhouse Productions has carved its niche weaving cogent themes of socio-political insight through popcorn movies. It has enjoyed a number of blockbuster successes including Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out,” which explores racial tensions and traumas; and more recently Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man,” in which a woman grapples with gaslighting and domestic abuse by an invisible ex, highlighting MeToo-era realities.

But did company head Jason Blum go too far when he greenlit the company’s latest release, “The Hunt”? Formerly titled “Red State vs. Blue State,” the film follows a number of blue-collar conservatives who awaken in an empty field to findthey’ve been captured and delivered as live game for a cadre of liberal elites to hunt and kill. The concept is not a new one to fans of the 1965 thriller “The Naked Prey,” or the 1932 action feature “The Most Dangerous Game,” before it (based on the classic 1924 short story of the same name). It’s a bit hoary as plots go, but the difference is in the telling.

Writer-producers Damon Lindelhof and Nick Cuse, both veterans of the apocalyptic TV Series “The Leftovers,” reportedly came to “The Hunt” after they challenged themselves to come up with the craziest idea conservatives might believe about liberals. Inspired by the debunked far-right conspiracy theory Pizzagate, they arrived at the invention of“Manorgate,” a conspiracy theory about hunting humans that runs through the plot of “The Hunt.”

“The Hunt” was initially set for release on Sept. 27, 2019. While there were mixed audience reviews following several initial test screenings around the Los Angeles area, Universal claimed the film had enjoyed some of the highest test scores ever for an original Blumhouse film. But trailers for the film triggered a right-wing backlash from people who had not yet seen the movie, complete with death threats.

The release date held until the mass shooting on August 3, 2019, when a gunman killed 22 and injured 24 people in El Paso, Texas. Then, less than 24 hours later, another shooter in Dayton, Ohio killed nine people and injured 27. A week later, Trump attempted to connect “The Hunt” to the shootings when he tweeted on August 9:

“Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! … The movie coming out is made in order….to inflame and cause chaos.”

The next day, Universal removed the film from its release calendar.

And now the film has reemerged, released this Friday, March 13 at a time when vitriol between political parties is as rancorous as ever.

In the film, a young woman (Emma Roberts) wakes up in the wilderness and joins with several others, all emerging from the brush somewhere remote. Soon, they are on the run through a forest, with bullets and arrows whizzing past them. Protagonists come and go for the first 30 minutes as each is dispatched in some grizzly manner, leaving the audience disoriented until it lands with the decidedly non-dispatchable Crystal, played with stoic righteousness by Betty Gilpin(“Nurse Jackie,” “GLOW”).

She partners with conspiracy theorist, Gary (Ethan Suplee), affording him the benefit of her survival tactics and combat expertise, honed while serving in Afghanistan. They meet at what appears to be a roadside convenience store run by Ma and Pop, (Amy Madigan and Reed Birney), who turn out to be in on the game.

“He’s a monster!” Pop says of one of their victims. “He probably uses the N-word!” Ma bristles when Pop says “black” instead of “African-American.” But he assures her it’s okay. “According to who?” she asks. “NPR,” he answers, which she points out is staffed by mostly white people. This is about the most clever stab at liberals the movie takes.

The satirical dialogue throughout the movie is tonally-off and clashes with, rather than relieves, the film’s tensions. And while “The Hunt” is occasionally smart, it’s not smart enough. It employs lazy cliché in lieu of savvy observation, which only reinforces what each side of the political divide already thinks of the other.

The idea that progressives (some of whom could not be there for the hunt because they are battling AIDS in Haiti, as the plot goes), would be interested in shooting people, or even firing guns, is fairly tone deaf given that they are the ones who tend to call for stricter gun control laws. But then again, absurdity was the point when Lindelhof and Cuse dreamed Manorgate up.

Almost anyone can die in this screwball, blood-soaked thriller (which they do in a variety of over-the-top ways) with the exception of Gilpin. She moves through her scenes the way Eastwood’s Man With No Name stalks Sergio Leone’s outlaws in “A Fistful of Dollars.” She’s smart, capable, a woman of few words, fast to action when needed and the sanest character in the cast.

In the last act, Gilpin meets her match in Athena (Hilary Swank), the liberal mastermind behind Manorgate, who draws Crystal into her country kitchen for a fatal duel involving a Cuisinart blade. The scene is long and drawn out, and Tarantino did it better in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1,” but it resolves the movie in a satisfactory, if unoriginal, way. The ending only underscores the film’s overall deficiency: a lack of imagination.

Even so, bravo to the new movie for treading a territory average thriller flicks dare not. While brushing up against an issue is not the same as exploring it, “The Hunt” may be as close as Hollywood comes to saying something about the nation’s tense and divisive political atmosphere.

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