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The most dangerous game – ‘The Hunt’

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It’s nice when movies have something to say.

Don’t get me wrong – I love turning off my brain and watching stuff blow up for a couple of hours as much as the next guy. However, there’s something inherently engaging about films that try to use the medium to explore larger concepts. If stuff blows up while they do so, so much the better.

There’s a long history of genre filmmakers finding ways to use their platforms to address social and cultural ideas – science fiction and fantasy, horror and thrillers and so on – in ways both subtler and more overt than can be done in more traditional films. When it’s done well, you get absolute classics – films that challenge the status quo and say something while also embracing the pulpiness of their genre roots.

When it’s done less well, you get movies like “The Hunt.”

The Blumhouse-produced film – directed by Craig Zobel from a script co-written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof – is a cross-genre effort to explore and satirize the current political divide and level of ideological discourse by way of elevated B-movie trappings. Basically, the deal is that the liberal elite is hunting vocal conservatives for sport, with all the societal and classist issues that that concept entails.

“The Hunt” has already generated controversy – the film’s opening date was pushed from September to March due to a combination of real-life circumstances and angry rhetoric – but the truth is that the vitriol would have been better-served elsewhere, because even though the baseline concept is one that might merit offense, the truth is that the film simply doesn’t commit enough to its ideals to be anything other than an incoherent jumble. Thematically, tonally, stylistically – it lacks consistency in every respect.

The plot is as simple as it sounds. An email hack has led to messages being disseminated from a wealthy liberal. One of these messages contains a reference to a manor where the hacked individual and others would bring “deplorables” in order to hunt them for sport. This message captures the imaginations of right-wingers everywhere – the conspiracy theories surrounding “Manor House” spring up all over social media, amplified by websites and podcasts.

So it is that a group of people wake up in a field, gagged and groggy. They make their way toward a large wooden crate in the middle of the field; when opened, it is revealed to be packed full of guns and other weapons. It’s not long before they’re arming themselves, but from there, the bullets start flying, courtesy of the wealthy liberals.

Initially, it’s a massacre, with a number of the hunted falling quickly and gruesomely. However, a few of them manage to escape that initial killing field, only to stumble their way into an assortment of traps – some crude, others quite sophisticated. Survival is the name of the game, but none of the hunted play it nearly as well as Crystal (Betty Gilpin, “The Grudge”), who rapidly proves more capable than anyone on either side might have anticipated.

Despite being severely outgunned, it’s up to Crystal to find a way to flip the script – to turn the hunters into the hunted – before it is too late.

There are aspects of “The Hunt” that work, but the waters are generally over-muddied. It boils down to that fundamental inability to maintain a consistent tone. There are moments of genuine tension and over-the-top violence and satiric humor, but those moments never gel as one. It’s a feeling of disconnect, as though someone is using pieces from multiple jigsaw puzzles to construct a single picture. It is jarring and jagged and largely ineffective. In addition, the film’s political nature tends toward the both-sides model in a way that never clicks; the ambiguity contributes to the overall murkiness of the experience.

As I said, however, some of it works. There’s an undeniable viscerality to the notion of man hunting man, an idea that has seen its share of pulpy cinematic explorations over the years. And those moments where the participants lean into the gleeful insanity of the premise are where the film shines brightest. There are also some narrative turns that, while largely telegraphed, are still effective in their way. Oh, and Zobel and company are unafraid to get gory; there’s plenty of splatter.

The ensemble is actually quite strong, both in terms of talent and the performances put forth by that talent. Gilpin is excellent, carrying most of the load with a lived-in world-weariness that works nicely. Some highlights from among her fellow prey include Ike Barinholtz as a Staten Island bro and Ethan Suplee as a hyper-paranoid podcaster, though there are a handful who have delightful and unexpected moments. As for the hunters, Glenn Howerton is delightfully smug, while Hilary Swank really chews the scenery as Athena, the leader of the cadre (whose face we don’t see for half the film, but she’s in the trailer, so it’s not a big surprise). But really, the cast is maybe the best part of the whole thing.

“The Hunt” falls victim to trying to do too much. Its reach largely exceeds its grasp; the efforts to be more ultimately result in it being less than it could have been. Again, there are moments, but not enough to salvage the overall result. Frankly, I like this movie more than it deserves to be liked, but hey – there’s no accounting for taste.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 March 2020 08:22

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