Back in July of 2019 the first trailer for The Hunt (2020) dropped online, showing a group of rich, snobby (liberal) elites hunting a bunch of regular (conservative) people, and the internet lost all common sense. The trailer was for a blatantly satirical movie, taking aim at arrogant coastal city-dwellers who didn’t see their midwestern rural counterparts as human. However, in the strongest case ever for the political right having no sense of humor, a variety of Republican voices, including President Donald Trump, decided that The Hunt was an attack on their base and got the movie pulled from theaters. Apparently the president sees rich assholes laughing about murdering people and thinks they’re the heroes of the film. Fast-forward to the early months of 2020 and new trailers for The Hunt start dropping, emphasizing the controversy while also explicitly stating that the premise is a joke. Then the movie was released and proved that none of the controversy was worth it.
The actual political message of The Hunt is basically “extremism bad.” The movie maintains the set up of liberal elites kidnapping stereotypical conservatives and hunting them for sport, but while the original trailer was definitely allied with the right-wing victims, the film itself is much more equivocating. As the conservatives start to band together and fight, it quickly becomes clear that they are equally stupid and nasty as the left-wing hunters. Both the “liberal” and “conservative” characters in the movie are cartoonishly overblown, with the implication that there’s no real difference between the two sides—everyone is just an idiot. One group believes baby refugees are crisis actors, the other argues over the merits of racial representation in their murder victims. They all suck. It simply isn’t a nuanced or provocative stance for the film to take, especially when it claims to be so political. What’s worse is that the film is overstuffed with its tepid commentary, never letting you forget that it is a Movie With A Message™. Most of the characters can’t speak a coherent sentence without inserting a gratingly annoying reference to their funhouse-mirror versions of political ideology, making them all deeply unlikeable.
This is unfortunate because without the obnoxious and inconsequential political commentary, The Hunt would actually be a pretty fun piece of pulpy B-movie schlock. It’s gratuitously violent in all the best ways, splattering gore across the screen after each over-the-top kill. Several of the action scenes are very well choreographed, especially the drawn-out brawl at the end of the film between main hero Crystal (Betty Gilpin) and antagonist Athena (Hilary Swank). Gilpin brings some much-needed rationality to the movie, eschewing any apparent political leanings for simple determination and survival instinct. Watching her outwit her hunters and apparent allies is easily the best part of the movie. Swank is still an overblown cartoon, but she pulls it off better than most of her costars. There’s a handful of baffling directorial decisions—like refusing to pick a main character for 20 minutes or showing only the back of Athena’s head until halfway through the movie—but they’re all so delightfully weird that it mostly adds to the experience. These choices are confusing from a stylistic point of view, but never compromise the audience’s understanding of the story. They appear more as odd curiosities than genuine impediments to the film.
But for every moment of joy The Hunt offers, there are three moments of pain. The political angle is extremely annoying and it destroys the experience of watching the film. “Don’t be an extremist” is an incredibly obvious message, and it’s driven home with such a lack of nuance that it ruins what could have been an enjoyable movie. The world doesn’t need the message The Hunt sends, and it certainly doesn’t need the inane controversy surrounding it.