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‘The Hunt’ Caused a Political Firestorm. Then It Flamed Out.

Why satire is the hardest thing to do in American movies in 2020

Blumhouse/Ringer illustration

During a critical moment in The Hunt, the canceled-then-revived-then-discarded exploitation horror movie that opened on Friday, a middle-aged husband turns to his wife during a realization of his own privilege and harrumphs, “White people. We’re the worst.”

It’s a lame line you might have heard from one of your performatively self-hating friends, a signal that as long as one realizes they’re the problem, they can also be the problem-solver. The Hunt knows from problems. It finally opened in theaters last weekend after a delay that looked like an orchestrated marketing campaign gone horribly wrong: Ostensibly a vicious satire about the polarization between liberals and conservatives, the film’s advertising caught the attention of President Donald Trump last August, a month ahead of its planned release. Advertising for The Hunt suggested a modernized The Most Dangerous Game, chronicling a group of wealthy liberal elites hunting uneducated, low-income conservatives for sport. (Technically accurate, it turns out, if oversimplified.) The president, if he even saw it, seemed to miss the trailer’s attempt at droll-anarchic “We’re all the worst!” self-abnegation. “The movie coming out is made in order … to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!” wrote the president of the United States of America on Twitter.

After mass shootings in Ohio and Texas heightened an already sensitive situation, the film’s producers, Blumhouse and Universal, decided to shelve the movie. Call it self-censorship or self-preservation, The Hunt’s message—and its availability—was submerged in a political fiasco. Cowriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and director Craig Zobel could only publicly shrug and hope their film would see the light of day. Would The Hunt become a cause célèbre? A mystery box casualty of the Trump administration? Couldn’t Universal just drop it on iTunes so we could see what all the fuss was about?

After six months on ice, The Hunt finally arrived into a different sort of fiasco, as the world copes with the effects of the COVID-19 crisis, and the theatrical movie industry attempts to contort itself into viability while confronted with a virus that can only be contained with isolation. Not ideal for movie houses eager to fill hundreds of seats every few hours. The Hunt opened on 3,028 screens nationwide and earned $5.76 million this weekend, the fifth-highest-grossing film during that period. Though reportedly budgeted at just $14 million, this is not a good outcome for the filmmakers and the studio. It’s a flop. At first glance, it may seem like their movie was snakebit, the unlucky product of a rotting political culture and a diseased world. Not exactly.

I didn’t hate The Hunt. It’s a peppy sort of murderous political satire; there are a few laughs. It’s got the most winning Final Girl in recent movie history in Betty Gilpin’s Crystal. The kills are violent and absurd. The pacing is zippy and the seeming Murder on the Orient Express ensemble setup is quickly dispatched, revealing a memorable mano-a-mano showdown with The Final Neo-Liberal Boss, played by a teeth-gritting, scenery-gnawing Hilary Swank. But the movie has lots of problems, particularly a candy-coated ideology that dissolves on contact.

Gilpin recently spoke to The New York Times about the film’s perceived controversy: “I wanted to take the internet by the lapels and say, ‘This is the exact opposite of the movie that you think it is. In fact, if these are the things you’re interested in, you would love this movie. You in particular—you there, screaming.’”

This is half-true. Essentially, there are no villains in The Hunt, only people who use the internet and think they’re smarter than those who disagree with them. As a treatise on how much the political discourse on Facebook sucks, The Hunt is a solid if unnecessary act of public decency. As a razor-toothed look at the fractured state of our nation, it’s about as useful as an episode of House Hunters. That this trifle of an exploitation flick became a going concern in the public court of Fox News is ridiculous. Every horror movie worth a damn is a sociological landmine laced with shrapnel—our president would cancel ’em all if he cared to consider one. (Watch Dawn of the Dead once!) Were The Hunt’s premise slightly less high-concept and significantly less amused with itself it might have had more bite. (Here’s a pitch: A town full of uneducated, low-income conservatives are infected with a disease and the local liberal elites need to arm themselves to beat back the zombie-citizens who can’t afford the limited-supply vaccine. We’ll call it Universal Hellcare.)

I’m reluctant to reveal the big twist that arrives two-thirds of the way through The Hunt, given that so few people have seen it. But it’s precisely what’s wrong with the movie, a mealymouthed turnabout-is-fair-play mind game with no message. And it peels back the nastiness that the movie presents in its early stages. As soon as the movie’s villains—the elites—are provided motivation for their hunt, their mission is muted and their prey is revealed to be nothing more than a band of ne’er-do-well shitposters. Every character save Gilpin—who is steely but intellectually blank—is a self-infatuated moron. Virtually everyone in this movie deserves to die ignominiously. That brand of nihilism isn’t satire. It’s target practice.

In recent years, Blumhouse has made its name on what Jordan Peele dubbed “social thrillers,” throwbacks to Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The People Under the Stairs. Peele’s Get Out is arguably the signature movie of the past five years, as powerful and entertaining as it was inextricable from our daily lives online. It created reams of memes and introduced a handful of indelible phrases into our lexicon. Blumhouse is, still, probably the single most vital stand-alone, creative mini-studio in Hollywood. Not all of its productions have the imprimatur of social import, but the best usually do. The Purge series has morphed from hyper-violent home invasion thriller to sociopolitical blaxploitation homage. The Unfriended movies defined “extreme social distancing” well before we’d heard those words. Even the pair of breezy, screwball Happy Death Day movies have had a lot to say about the terrors of campus culture in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the real world had something to say about The Hunt: We don’t need it. Our polarization as a country is undoubtedly a scary issue that seems unmanageable and manifest by our own worst impulses. I watched another 2020 release this weekend, the forthcoming political documentary Slay the Dragon, which carefully chronicles the issue of redistricting in the aftermath of the 2010 election and the reorganization of the map in several states around the country. It’s a sincere, straightforward piece of soft liberal journalism, but hugely effective in illustrating how battle lines are literally drawn every 10 years, after the census is taken. Then I watched Fail Safe, Sidney Lumet’s throat-clenching 1964 tale of the world on the brink of mutually assured destruction. Then I watched another movie by Lumet, perhaps my favorite movie ever depending on the day, 1976’s feverish and unexpiring Network. Then I watched John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, a parable about quarantines and the nature of crime. (It may come as no surprise that I had some free time these past 48 hours.) I finished my Anxiety Film Festival with another 2020 release, Joe Begos’s grim, grimy VFW, a grindhouse revenge movie with a subterranean political text about our country’s forgotten veterans. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it certainly stakes out a point of view: The old warriors of our country may not be politically correct, but they have more integrity than the drug-dealing youth ghouls who run things today.

Not all of these movies are satires, but most of them reflect anxieties with practical concerns. Fail Safe ends more dramatically—more operatically—than any movie of its era (“The matador … the matador ... the matador … me … me.”), but it fired an arrow of nuclear terror into the heart of every viewer. Network didn’t just predict the future of the corporate news media—it invented reality TV, lampooned agitprop revolutionary politics, and suggested social media as a culturally dominant force. It was written 45 years ago! It isn’t reasonable to hold The Hunt to the standards of these movies I chose to watch to counteract the oddity of self-quarantine. But idea movies need to have ideas to be understood as such, they have to be richer than the times, more prescient and more forceful, fearless in their appraisal of our life and willing to make someone hate them. If you’re looking for a raging, health-conscious idea movie for these times, try 1971’s The Hospital, from Paddy Chayefsky, the same man who wrote Network. Likewise, there’s a movie about how divided we are out there somewhere, without the fear of reprisal and the bothsidesism that softens The Hunt’s brute force, less interested in self-scolding than in making something authentically brazen. The Hunt is a romp, gleeful in its sick depiction of media-addled idiocy. But it’s unworthy of the attention of the American political machine, or much else. It’s just buckshot.