Culture war satire has plenty of bark but no bite

David G. Hughes on Craig Zobel’s ‘The Hunt’ (2020)

The brouhaha surrounding the release of The Hunt, a film about rich liberal “elites” hunting blue-collar “deplorables” for sadistic sport, certainly seems to have worked in favour of Universal Pictures’ exposure campaign. With the US President tweeting against the film for presumptuous anti-Trump bias, followed by a postponement on the basis that its material was considered sensitive in the aftermath of mass shootings, the opportunistic marketing team have plastered an enticing tagline onto the poster: “The most talked about movie of the year…” This aperitivo plays into a cause célèbre reputation, wets the appetite at a time when sleeve-tugging, people-pleasing studio pictures grovel to well-organised, lowest common denominator agendas. With the controversial success of Warner Bros. Joker (2019), which tapped into the studio’s rich history for salacious social problem filmmaking, could it be that we are witnessing an unruly new wave of courageous major motion pictures? Well, the second part of the tagline helps us to answer that question, which reads: “…that nobody has seen yet.” If the President had seen the film he, like most, would discover that there was a whole lot of fuss about a bunch of nothing. The Hunt lands as a bathetic dud, a victim of its own well-calibrated reputation.

This is the flip-side of a film that earns a reputation beyond its station — inevitable disappointment. One can imagine The Hunt as an unassuming straight-to-video flick, maybe starring Scott Adkins or Michael Jai White, and you’d be more inclined to forgive its shortcomings. But it’s harder to forgive the dreadfully disappointing impression of overblown hype. As a satire of the bourgeois liberal left it fails completely where a feature like The Square (2017) was so spectacularly piercing. Lacking that films acerbic wit, scriptwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof have strung together a composite of contemporary buzzwords like “snowflake” and “cultural appropriation” and patted themselves on the back. One could forgive any shortcomings in its ambition as scathing “commentary” but had Adkins or Jai White starred in the film, we would have at least got some bang for our buck. Which is to say The Hunt fails as a genre exercise too, busy being self-satisfied about its dud point-making to escape the shadow of funner, similarly themed “human hunt” films including Hard Target (1993), the Adkins-starring Hard Target 2 (2016), right back to pre-code The Most Dangerous Game (1932). I’d rather take the balletic grace of a well-executed JCVD roundhouse kick than a Hannity joke.

Even with an impressive Amazonian turn from central star Betty Gilpin as a battle-hardened Southerner, it’s fair to say that The Hunt is following in the footsteps of a different tradition—chiefly the trend in social satire genre flicks, including Get Out (2017), Ready or Not (2019) and, most obviously considering the shared production house, The Purge (2013- ). The Hunt is the drabbest of these. I can’t say the trend is one to admire; its desperation to advertise intelligence at the cost of proletarian dexterity is no different to most modern-day, people-pleasing studio releases, the dispiriting affect of which can be best summarised as a hollow plea to “please like me”. It’s outré-ness is entirely performative, but not at all surprising in this climate. In an economy based on what people say rather than what they do, this trend in cinema has been on the cards — it’s Twitter writ large on the screen, but it’s also dumbing down the moving picture art and calling it smart. It’s entirely telling that the best joke in a very online film concerns a character getting a Twitter like from Ava DuVernay.

A similarly blood-soaked feature, released almost exactly the same time albeit on a much smaller scale, is Fangoria’s VFW, which presents a counter study in filmmaking that has likewise social ambition but places it in a hierarchy under genre-literate filmmaking. VFW‘s nuts and bolts, folk art localism contrasts tellingly to The Hunt‘s flashy studio energy that lacks the same sense of character, or earnest human involvement. The Hunt is an unfeeling, cynically calculated effort in offending no one, riding on the inherently radical and appealing coattails of free expression without ever exercising its own first amendment rights. It’s not that the film should “take sides” to be interesting (although the film is boldly sympathetic to blue-collar conservatives by fashioning them as the victims in an industry that’s not usually so kind), but it offers no interesting analysis of its own, and its eventual statement of values registers as little more than a statement of nothing at all.

The job of the critic used to be to read into the film and discover hidden, poignant meanings. Now we simply regurgitate the films conspicuous, self-designated talking points. The fact is The Hunt is a banal high concept movie that, like many high concepts movies before it, is unable to get beyond the initial pull that, in this case, happened to irk a sensitive President. It’s a one joke exercise that starts promisingly but quickly reveals itself as aimless and rather vanilla. In one sense it’s pure exploitation movie, the sort of thing that jumps onto a zeitgeist to churn a profit like Corman did when he strung together some psychedelia and motorbike movies in the 60s. But it’s also embarrassingly trying to “say something” about how we’re all in it together, that conservatives read Orwell too, and that we need to empathise and cross the aisle, and so on. I don’t disagree with these sentiments at all, but that might well be the problem.

The Hunt is showing in UK cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.