The Hunt (2020) Movie Review

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Betty Gilpin as Crystal in "The Hunt," directed by Craig Zobel.
Betty Gilpin as Crystal in “The Hunt,” directed by Craig Zobel.

The Hunt is a sketchy riot rescued by an astounding Betty Gilpin

President Trump’s least favorite ultraviolent satire finally hits theaters.

Machine guns and landmines, deplorables and snowflakes, spike traps and skullcrushery, visible intestines played for laughs and a tackling deathduel across a kitchen island that still smells of grilled gruyere. Did I mention the symbolic pig? Did I mention all the characters discussing the symbolism of the pig? The Hunt stuffs a satire grenade down America’s pants, hoping the shrapnel spreads from sea to shining sea. The explosion is messy, but it sure is an explosion, with a brisk hour-and-half runtime full of violent twists and cackling turns.

It’s a great survival thriller, and a disappointing political comedy. As a compromise, the movie’s two chaotic tones unite behind one standout performer in her starmaking moment. Betty Gilpin strolls taciturn into danger around minute 20, by which point the film has already run rampant. Previously, she’s been just one of many kidnapped randoms waking up in a strange landscape, mouths muzzled, circumstances deadly. They’re in a most dangerous game, an old-fashioned human hunt rebooted for post-2016 hysteria. The confused victims are vocal workaday Republicans with ragebox social media accounts. Their unseen persecutors are rich sensitive Democrats, the sort of people who attend TED talks because they’re giving TED talks. Typical headshot one-liner: “For the record, a–hole, climate change is real.” Here’s a gore-splattered culture clash between gun nuts and armed intellectuals: Damn it, how was this not titled Trigger Warning?

The Hunt is an ensemble picture for a while, with lots of familiar TV faces blown up on the big screen. And the first act has five acts, cheekily shifting perspective, establishing rules and breaking them. Theories scream over bullets. Someone quotes George Orwell. Then Gilpin’s character arrives, nameless for a good long while, her manner quiet and eerily still. She must be tired and scared. But her nonchalant stare comes off resigned, even amused: Oh, this again, like getting amnesia-dropped into a woodsy thunderdome wouldn’t rank on her Five Worst Tuesdays. The Hunt gives every other character an ideology. All Gilpin wants is a cigarette. Imagine Clint Eastwood’s squint and Tina Fey’s eyeroll: She’s that cool, and that funny.

The screenplay comes from beloved TV creator Damon Lindelof, who also produces, and from Nick Cuse, who worked on Lindelof’s HBO masterworks The Leftovers and Watchmen. They’ve reunited with director Craig Zobel, who helmed a few excellent Leftovers hours. The dialogue has the delightful Lindelof kick, self-aware enough to know that the audience is expecting self-awareness. Ethan Suplee plays a loudmouth podcaster named Gary, who rambles on about a meme-y “Manorgate” conspiracy. “Are you f—s trying to teach us a lesson?” he asks his tormentors, something I always want a Saw character to say.

Just what are those f—s trying to do? The zigzag plot reflects Lindelof’s love for narrative trickery. We sort of know what’s happening — or do we, or do we don’t not? A character wakes up in a forest surrounded by confused companions and nefarious strangers: That was already the Lost pilot Lindelof co-wrote back in 2004, and The Hunt even has its own weird stuff with a plane. But the story rips freely from trending topics. A prologue text chain references “our ratf—er-in-chief.” Sean Hannity gets a shoutout, and so does Ava DuVernay. There’s some timeline jazz. I’m talking around some fun surprises and a couple dull ones. The Hunt has good tricks up its sleeve; it also has too many sleeves.

So, like: America. Politics. States: United? Division!! And, yes, controversy. Only a stupid dumb idiot with terrible taste would mistake the everything-is-crazy goofery of The Hunt for a sincere partisan message. We’re miles away from the textured countermyth of Watchmen, where genetically traumatized secret police punched poor racists because rich racists felt ignored by democracy. In The Hunt, there are very un-fine people on both sides. Glenn Howerton plays a business-class gasbag disappointed when private jets don’t have figs on demand. Ike Barinholtz is a Staten Island bro who brags mid-hostage crisis about the seven guns he owns. Murderous liberals wokeshame each other. Fleeing conservatives find time to say nasty things about refugees.

It’s funny at times, but only ever SNL Funny, with beats so obvious you could sing along. Race and gender are the source of a couple decent gags, but you sense Lindelof and Cuse tiptoeing there, two white guys being respectfully rude. Honestly, I don’t think their screenplay has much to say about politics. If anything, and I’m only half-kidding, their biggest point is: “It sure is hard to say anything about politics.”

The Hunt’s on firmer ground as a horror-comedy riff on the escape-the-wilderness-killzone tale. Zobel finds a nice mix of looney-tunes farce and legitimate tension. He’s lucky to have Gilpin as the laconic protagonist, glamorously regular wielding a sawn-off shotgun in cargo pants and a Rent-A-Car jacket. You’ve met this archetype before, the unexpectedly prepared prey-turned-predator. Think Sharni Vinson in You’re Next, or Samara Weaving in Ready or Not. But anyone who’s seen Netflix’s wonderful wrestling comedy GLOW knows the Emmy-nominated Gilpin is a brilliantly subtle hyperbolist, capable of juggling two opposing emotions while dancing backward in star-spangled spandex. She finds every possible angle of approach for the material here, mumbling when things get melodramatic, flamboyantly tripling the syllables in “bitch.”

The brilliance of Betty Gilpin was notably not the subject of a Hunt-related message tweeted last summer by the president of the United States. The attention of the executive branch turned the movie scandalous, though the delay from late summer into primary season has its own marketing appeal.

Conservatives saying mean things on the internet happens to be a key plot point, but I wonder if the (openly liberal) Lindelof is struggling through some deeper issues. Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of Lost adoration, he was a cheerful and approachable online presence. That show ended in 2010 — a lost age of Zuckerberg worship and techno-triumphalism. Lindelof saw the dark heart of social media early, besieged by fan rage until he finally left Twitter.

No surprise, maybe, that The Leftovers caught all kind of Trump Era vibes way ahead of schedule. In the show’s final season, Zobel directed a Lindelof-Cuse script featuring a president-enabled nuclear holocaust — which aired mere months before tensions with North Korea rattled hot after the president’s “fire and fury” speech. And as John Oliver recently noted, the fatality rate for COVID-19 corresponds directly to The Leftovers’ two-percent disappearance rate.

The big disappointment with The Hunt is that it never feels so ahead of the curve. It’s a complicated form of 2016 catharsis, condemning recognizable pastiches of the left and the right. And yet, there’s a playful terror in its portrayal of people getting trapped by silly things they type. Their own words weaponize against them. Unserious statements provoke dead serious reactions. Context collapses jokes into insults, and throwaway chatter becomes manifesto prose.

Lindelof left Twitter and created the best work of his career. The deeply buried tragedy of The Hunt is the suspicion that nobody gets to leave Twitter anymore, not ever. So Gilpin’s deadpan exhaustion lifts the whole film — and expresses a mood more haunting than anything else in the busy script. Is she recovering from the last few minutes, or the last few years?