New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: “THE HUNT” MAY BE VIOLENT, BUT IT PULLS ITS POLITICAL PUNCHES

THE HUNT, a film about the elite left hunting down enemies on the right was supposed to be released on September 27, 2019. Opening so closely on the heels of the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings that year struck the filmmakers as horrible timing, so they shelved the dark comedy-actioner until now. Whether or not the film finds an audience this weekend may depend upon how up for a political satire the nation is, especially one that’s not nearly as mean as it thinks it is, but most likely, it will be the Coronavirus that keeps people from mingling together in theaters. A pandemic trumps politics, imagine that.

As edgy commentaries about society go, THE HUNT doesn’t pack nearly the wallop that it should or was reported to in the early chatter online. Both the right and the left get satirized to the point of caricature in the movie, and their divide is given precious little time or insight in a script more interested in shocking violence than in political stances.

Instead, where the film does succeed often is in its over-the-top brutal violence and a number of narrative rug-pulls that defy expectations. Characters we think are going to be key players in the mix get offed after very little screen time. Situations are not what they appear to be, nor are characters, and much of the cleverness of the film lies in all the lies being told by everyone in the story.

There’s a lot of bloodletting, but most of it is played for laughs. The kills practically get set up as if they’re sitcom jokes: set-up line, set-up line – BOOM! – punchline. Only here the punchlines are heads or bodies exploding. All that jokey killing gets monotonous a mere 20 minutes in, especially as the story starts to scratch off its cast faster than Agatha Christie did in 10 LITTLE INDIANS. Hard to invest in a story when the characters are dropping like flies.

Some of the name cast barely constitute cameo status. The film regards everyone as chattel, ready for slaughter. That’s made clear in the opening minutes when a redneck is killed aboard a private plane filled with elites on their way to a secret hunting preserve. While the rich aboard argue about caviar, political correctness, and NPR, a kidnapped Bubba awakes from being drugged and fights for his life amongst the aghast passengers. He flails about until one of the passengers stabs him in the jugular with a ballpoint pen. It’s a nasty, messy death, but we’re encouraged to laugh at how the film ridicules both the victim and his killer. The film announces itself as an equal-opportunity offender.

Soon, the plane lands and 12 kidnapped strangers awaken to find themselves in the middle of a forest, gagged and groggy. They make their way to a large wooden box in the middle of a field that is chock-full of weapons, everything from machine guns to machetes. They find keys to unlock their gags too, but before they’ve barely had a chance to grab a gun or introduce themselves, they’re under attack with half their numbers being eradicated by unseen forces.

Three of the hunted escape the field and take shelter in a dingy gas station down the road run. It’s run by an aging couple (veteran character actors Amy Madigan and Reed Birney) who seem to be spooked by their weapon-wielding customers. But then a gunfight breaks out and the owners are revealed to be part of the hunting party. They’re playacting to lure their prey into a trap. From there on out, no set-piece, no alliance, no character can be taken at face value.

That makes the film interesting and often quite fun, particularly as Betty Gilpin takes center stage as the smartest and physically prepared of all the prey. On the GLOW sitcom on Netflix, Gilpin has established herself as a terrific performer, essaying comedy, pathos, and stunts with equal aplomb. Those skills come in handy here as her character starts taking down all comers. Gilpin is funny, fierce, and sympathetic. She elevates the one-joke premise into something deeper when she’s onscreen.

So does Hilary Swank, finally revealed in the last third of the film as the string-pulling villainess. She’s a good match for Gilpin in both her ability to command the screen with her wit and physical prowess. (Million Dollar Baby, indeed.) Together, the two actresses manage to provide a clever and well-choreographed climax that delivers some genuine thrills and chills.

What isn’t as well-choreographed is a disjointed screenplay that flashes back at the oddest of times, telling oodles of backstory late in the game. It feels more like a gimmick than necessary narrative points, and why the film hides the identity of Swank’s character until she shows up onscreen in the last 20 minutes feels inexplicable.

Sure, the film, written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, and directed by Craig Zobel, manages to rollick along, but as savvy social satire, Lindelof’s adaptation of WATCHMEN on HBO provides heftier commentary by far. If anything, this effort feels all too safe, far more even-steven than it should. THE HUNT may be bursting at the seams with carnage, but as a savaging political satire, it definitely pulled its punch.

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