Satire, at its best, offers an angle or viewpoint you didn’t consider before. It provides clear revelation on a complicated subject. Think of Parasite, which doesn’t say the word “capitalism” once, but constructs an entire narrative explaining the economic system’s weaknesses while still using believable characters within a compelling framework. Craig Zobel‘s new movie The Hunt, by comparison, aspires to be satire but at best it’s a thought experiment and at worst it’s what would happen if a dopey pundit like Chris Cillizza tried to write a screenplay. Working from a script by Damon Lindelof & Nick Cuse, Zobel’s movie starts from a place of purposeful stereotypes but never works to ask larger questions or make an observation more pointed than arguing we should all try to find our common humanity. Despite a great lead performance from Betty Gilpin, The Hunt looks at our political moment and thinks we’re all being ridiculous without offering anything of substance as an alternative.
A bunch of strangers wake up in a field gagged. They’re then given a cache of weapons before being picked off by mysterious figures. And since the film was previously delayed by gun violence (I guess Universal lucked out that there was no mass shooting in the news this week) and people being mad at the movie without knowing the plot, I’ll reveal a bit more: the idea is that a bunch of stereotypical far-right people are being hunted by stereotypical far-left people. It’s “deplorables” vs. “elites” and in the middle of the fray is a mysterious woman (Gilpin) who seems better attuned to the game than anyone else being hunted.
The concept of The Hunt is basically looking at how people interact with each other online or in the media and deciding to take that war of words and turn it physically violent. You have a bunch of “deplorables” who believe far-right conspiracy theories (here it’s “ManorGate” instead of “Pizzagate”), use terms like “snowflakes” without irony, own seven guns, etc. Then they’re hunted by “elites”, rich people who value political correctness more than human life, have grown tired of caviar, and care about climate change. No one, perhaps save Gilpin’s character, is supposed to be “real” because the point of the film is that political identities have sanded down our nuances and idiosyncrasies to render us into caricatures. Lindelof and Cuse have looked at our political moment and decided, “If you guys hate each other so much without even understanding each other as individuals, why don’t you just kill each other Battle Royale style?”
The problem with this observation is that it goes nowhere. The film quickly devolves into comic slaughter as both the deplorables and the elites are thrown into the meat grinder of gory deaths with the thin plot thread of trying to find out exactly how “The Hunt” came to be and what’s up with Gilpin’s character. Once you figure out what the film is doing in the first twenty minutes or so, it become a chore because Lindelof and Cuse have nothing more to add to their starting point. There’s no examination of how these identities form, differing forms of persecution, grievance politics, or anything beyond the notion of, “Boy, people sure can be mean to each other when we’ve dehumanized the other side.” It’s the same kind of thinking that assumes white supremacists are just as dangerous as antifa. “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” as a stupid man once said.
I don’t mind that The Hunt doesn’t agree with my politics, and I do think there’s something to be said for the shortcomings of “elites” but what bothers me about the film is that its satire is so saggy and weightless that it offers little insight beyond, “Be nicer to each other,” and that’s not really good enough because your target isn’t really left-vs-right but simply online discourse. If that’s all you’re interested in, then you’ve really missed not only what online harassment looks like (to be fair, Lindelof has certainly been the victim of some pointed vitriol for his past projects, but by the same token, he’s a powerful person in a major industry as opposed to, say, a random woman on Twitter who has an opinion about video games or Star Wars), but also who has power and who doesn’t. Part of the reason The Hunt falls apart so quickly into wholesale slaughter is that its subtext is so thinly constructed; there’s not much to explore, so Zobel just piles on the violent deaths.
The only part of the movie that works is Gilpin, who just sinks her teeth into her mysterious character and has a ball playing someone who actually knows the score. What’s bizarre is that Gilpin is surrounded by other strong actors (Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Macon Blair, Emma Roberts, etc.) but the film is too eager to show you that “anyone is up for grabs” while making it clear that Gilpin’s character is the true protagonist and is going to make it to the end of this narrative, so you just zone out waiting for everyone else to exit the picture. Thankfully, Gilpin is a talented actress making plenty of great choices so even when the film’s satire becomes tedious, she knows how to hold our interest.
The Hunt is reminiscent of a film like Joker, a movie that pretends to be thoughtful and speak to our current moment without really saying much of anything. Lindelof and Cuse had an interesting starting point about how we view our political identities, and how those identities are forged not in our behavior but in opposition to those with an antagonistic identity, but the writers have no idea how to build the commentary beyond an easy dismissal of conflict as ridiculous. Yes, it would be nice if we saw people in their totality, but people can also be political actors who want power to achieve particular ends. The Hunt is content to throw up its hands, toss every politically mean person into the same boat, and call it a day. Lindelof and Cuse are right that online discourse isn’t real life, but they’re wrong in thinking they needed an entire movie to say that.