For a few moments last summer, The Hunt was the most controversial movie on the planet. The movie’s trailer put forth a premise familiar from the Purge franchise, in which the rich hunt the poor for sport, and given the success Blumhouse Productions and Universal Pictures had with those movies, they must have thought they’d be dipping into the same till. But The Hunt added a new wrinkle, separating its characters not just by social class but by political beliefs, with the hunters and the hunted referring to each other as “elites” and “deplorables,” and that was enough for all hell to break loose. While far-right media outlets regularly accuse coastal liberals of conspiring to attack the white working class, that scenario’s embodiment as a product of a Hollywood studio could only mean that the industry actually approved of such attacks. Fox News claimed that the movie—which virtually no one had seen at that point—“glamorizes the killing of Trump supporters” and suggested its ultimate message was that “you should kill your political adversaries.” By the time Donald Trump tweeted that The Hunt “was made in order to inflame and cause chaos,” the wisest thing to do was cancel its release, then delay it until a time when the president’s attention was focused elsewhere.
Six months later, The Hunt is finally being released. Is it really as provocative as it sounds?
The short answer, unsurprisingly, is no. The trailers have the main idea right: A group of a dozen Americans from deep-red states is kidnapped and dropped into the wilderness, trying to make their way to safety while distant figures in high-priced outdoor gear pick them off with high-powered rifles and crossbows. But even from that brief glimpse, it should have been clear whose side the movie is on. We see Betty Gilpin’s Crystal as a shotgun-toting badass with a Southern drawl, fending for herself while also stopping to shield an elderly refugee from gunfire, while Hilary Swank’s Athena stabs an unarmed man through the eye with a high-heeled shoe and proclaims, presumably of the hunt’s quarry, that “they’re not human beings.” If anything, it seems designed to flatter QAnon-type theories about the conspiracies that lie just under the surface of American life, and then to provide the satisfaction of giving those liberal elites a taste of their own medicine.
In the world of the movie, the hunt itself already has a name, the Manor Game, its existence asserted in Reddit threads and on fringe podcasts. To be paranoid is simply to be ahead of the game. So while the victims are shocked to have been drugged and snatched from their homes—Mississippi, Alabama, and Republican-leaning Staten Island (the home of the last Purge movie)—the ones who survive the initial assault are at least not surprised. And in fact, the movie does nothing to trouble whatever political beliefs you might enter the theater with. Back in August, a Universal spokesperson defended the film by telling Variety that “no audience members in attendance at the test screening expressed discomfort with any political discussion in the film.” But a political movie that doesn’t trouble its audience at all has no reason to exist. Craig Zobel, who directed The Hunt, said his goal was to “poke at both sides” of the political divide, but a movie that did that successfully would discomfit everyone, not no one.
The biggest problem with The Hunt is its phenomenally lazy script, which is by Damon Lindelof and his frequent collaborator Nick Cuse. (Booting the movie into the next year prevented Lindelof, who created HBO’s Watchmen, from having his name on one of 2019’s smartest entertainments and one of its dumbest.) The elites and the deplorables—there’s no point in inventing terms for them more sophisticated than the movie itself—feel more like ambulatory sacks of culture-war buzzwords than human beings. The deplorables rant about “globalist cucks” and the deep state; the elites listen to NPR and scream “Climate change is real!” as a battle cry. (The closest it gets to drawing blood is when it shows one of the elites, who are prepping their weapons for another assault, glancing at his phone and cooing, “Ava DuVernay liked one of my posts!”) White liberals who cringed at Bradley Whitford’s patriarch in Get Out will feel no twinge of recognition here. No one will see themselves in The Hunt, and only those inclined to ignorant caricature will fancy they recognize the others.
Political movies don’t have to be grounded in specifics. The Purge movies have fruitfully played on (or, if you prefer, exploited) feelings of disenfranchisement by positing a world in which citizens are turned against one another for the amusement, and profit, of a select few. It’s a framing that has the ring of truth for anyone who’s not watching the movie in a private screening room in the basement of their mansion—and who knows, maybe a few billionaires will buy into the idea of a society where the fortunate engineer the downfall of the less so for their own amusement, except for the part where that’s supposed to be a problem. But The Hunt gives us only wealthy liberals and salt-of-the-earth conservatives, barring a few of the latter who are dispatched so early in the movie that we don’t get to learn anything about them. And it’s in that respect that the movie is not just lazy but a lie. It feels like the work of Hollywood liberals bending over so far backward to seem nonpartisan that they end up buying into the right-wing canard that the political divide and the class divide are one and the same, a fiction that suits the wealthy Republicans who harness class-war rhetoric to serve their own interests just fine. And it serves wealthy liberals, too, who can convince themselves that they might have issues, but they’re not like these people.
There’s the seed of a better idea in The Hunt’s third-act twist, which suggests that deplorables and elites have been driven by the others’ rhetoric to embrace the worst version of themselves. But political positions aren’t just a matter of rhetoric, and pretending that they are—that they’re just a matter of cultural differences, of what kind of accents people speak with and what kind of podcasts they listen to—is worse than a lie. It’s cowardly, and it stems from having the privilege to see those differences as cosmetic, because their consequences never reach inside your front gate. The Hunt isn’t a both-sides movie. It’s a no-sides movie.