Most media controversies in American culture strike me as random and arbitrary, considering Hollywood’s history of toxically messaged content. But The Hunt (2020), a pitch-dark comic horror satire with a deeply political bent, may be one that earns the stripes of its notoriety. With its release delayed by untimely proximity to mass shootings and a premise that, sight unseen, raised the ire of conservatives, The Hunt was probably a case of too much, too soon in the degrading, divided discourse of a Trumpified America. Even now it may still be, but assuming humanity survives another fifty years, this film may also stand as a fascinating time capsule of our fractious moment in history.
The Hunt opens with a deliciously intriguing what-the-hell-is-happening vibe, as a dozen victims awaken in the wilderness with their mouths clamped closed in locked horse-bits, having been abducted and with no idea what’s happening. When they find a crate full of weapons in a field, it becomes evident that most of them are MAGA red hats of various backgrounds, who have stumbled into “Manorgate,” a rumored conspiracy of liberal elite sociopaths who capture and hunt down right-leaning Trump lovers and other conservative firebrands. Sure enough, the liberal hunters open fire from their blind, forcing the conservative targets to run for their lives. But one of them, Crystal Creasey (Betty Gilpin), turns out to be more resourceful than the rest, leading to a showdown with the villainous mastermind behind the hunt, Athena Stone (Hilary Swank).
If nothing else, The Hunt is an interesting creation with a compelling walk-on rhythm and dark, mildly amusing twists and turns. Oh, the core conceit is deeply obvious: it’s basically a contentious Twitter debate, dramatized to hyper-exaggerate the idiocy of the right and the clueless elitism of the left. Does anyone need to see that right now? I’m guessing most people don’t, and given the deadly serious, real-world consequences of the rhetoric it mocks, most won’t find it a healthy exercise. Nor does it help that the air of mystery requires open-mindedness to “both-sidesism,” which should engender an ugly aftertaste for any reasonably sensible viewers. But the scenario’s take on the surreal mutability of political truth is mildly interesting, an angle that more subtly puts its finger on the pulse of things. Aiding this level is a winning, impressive performance from Gilpin, who perfects a delicate balance as a primary protagonist who needs to appeal to conservatives and liberals alike. Somehow she nails it, and while a number of performers contribute to the entertainment — including Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Reed Birney, Wayne Duvall, Amy Madigan, and Emma Roberts — it’s Gilpin who sells whatever nuance the film possesses. High art it isn’t, and there’s enough hot-button sneering in the script to piss off the entire political spectrum, but ultimately The Hunt may have legs as a record of a fragile sociopolitical culture in its death throes.