The Hunt review: Nihilistic culture war bloodbath fails to leave a meaningful mark

The controversial gore-fest has its moments as a survival thriller but struggles to live up to its satirical ambitions

Betty Gilpin in The Hunt (Universal)
2.0 out of 5 star rating

Few films in recent years have prompted as much furore prior to release as Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, a schlocky survival satire that finally arrives in UK cinemas this week. As those who keep a keen eye on release schedules will know, the film had originally been slated to hit the big screen last September. But in the wake of two prominent mass shooting incidents and following fierce criticism of its premise by Donald Trump that release was delayed, with producer Jason Blum recently telling RadioTimes.com that at one point he feared it might never be released at all. 

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When watching the film it’s clear that Trump can’t have watched it in order to reach the conclusion he did – more on that later – but what can’t be denied is that the controversy surrounding the Hunt has afforded it a status as something of a must-watch, boosting its profile and generating all sorts of interest among people desperate to see what all the fuss was about. 

So was the controversy justified? Well, that’s complicated. Let’s start with the premise: much has been made of Damon Lindelof’s script, which is centred on an elite group of rich liberals hunting down and butchering “deplorables” – essentially Trump supporters, rednecks and assorted conspiracy theorist types. It was this idea that the US President – or “the rat-f**ker-in-chief,” as he is referred to in the film’s opening segment – took umbrage with.

What Trump can’t have been aware of, though, is that these liberal elites are unequivocally not presented as the good guys, with the significant bulk of the action focusing on the aforementioned “deplorables” as they navigate the painstakingly elaborate hunting ground they’ve been unknowingly dropped into. That’s not to say that the film squarely takes the side of the hunted – there are jokes aplenty aimed at them too – but it’s certainly a far cry from the conservative-bashing propaganda piece that the film’s early detractors, Trump included, would have you believe it is. 

Following an opening section in which we are intermittently introduced to an assortment of characters only for them to each meet a swift, brutal demise, the focus settles on Betty Gilpin’s Crystal, a mysterious action-hero figure whose first scene sees her dispose of two elderly liberals in a makeshift convenience store erected especially for the hunt. The rest of the film follows her journey as she encounters a variety of new obstacles – including a bunch of “fake” refugees on a moving train – before a flashback in the final act provides a little more background about the whole ordeal. 

As a straight-up survival thriller the film more or less works. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any stretch, but there are enough flashy set-pieces and fun confrontations to keep the audience firmly entertained. An excellent Kill Bill-esque fight scene at the film’s conclusion is a highlight, and Gilpin (GLOW) turns in a captivating performance in the lead role. Admittedly the jokes are a little inconsistent, with much of the humour taking a fairly broad aim at easy and often obvious targets, but scattered throughout there are also some genuinely good lines (“Ava Duvernay liked my Tweet!”) that may raise a chuckle.

The issue is that the Hunt begs its audience not to treat it as just a survival thriller, instead aspiring to more lofty ambitions as some kind of sharp culture war satire. With it so obviously labouring to make some sort of profound point, it becomes impossible to judge it on anything other than those terms – and that’s where, frankly, the film fails.

Because what point is The Hunt really trying to make? Yes, there’s a profound political and cultural divide at the heart of America, we all know that. But is depicting that divide as a nihilistic bloodbath between shallowly drawn caricatures really the clever idea the film seems to think? It’s hard to argue that it is.  

There aren’t really characters in this film – rather a bunch of stock figures personifying the most extreme views in US society, whether that be conspiracy pushing anti-immigrant conservatives or hypocritical vegan liberals. This creative decision is clearly an attempt to reflect the two-dimensional, unempathetic manner in which opposing sides tend to view each other (especially on social media) but what really emerges is a sort of simplistic ‘both sides-ism’ that comes across as confused and pointless and which is likely to inflame tensions and stoke further division. Both sides are bad, the film seems to argue, and that’s the end of that! 

In trying to be bold and provocative, The Hunt essentially comes across as a bit cowardly and empty. This muddied, confused political stance undermines lots of what’s good about the film – and ultimately ensures it fails to leave a meaningful mark.

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The Hunt is showing in UK cinemas now