A group of anti-woke conservatives from across the country are dropped in an open grassy field. They’re given guns. And looking upon them, hidden in the hills, are an array of woke elites picking each one of them off, one-by-one. Adapted from Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” Craig Zobel’s The Hunt watched its released date infamously delayed after President Trump denounced the film after mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso. Even so, the Purge-lite flick is now soon-to-be released. Unfortunately. Because while The Hunt‘s bloody deadly entertainment is fun, the satire fails under the same constraints it’s lampooning.
Zobel assembles a cast composed of Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, and Ethan Suplee. But the narrative mostly follows the resourceful and intimidating Crystal (Betty Gilpin, a tremendous force throughout) traversing through the narrative’s political and literal hunting grounds.
The satire’s first act is fun but disjointed, often careening with very little purpose. There’s blood, guts, explosions, guns, and arrows. With all, when taken in conjunction, overwhelming the senses. Because while the mix of practical and VFX effects create spectacular kills and epic deaths, the rushed impact lacks any defining blows. It’s not until the second act, when the lens shifts to Crystal that the narrative breathes. Though, even that’s a thin consolation. Because the story amounts to nothing, other than Crystal avoiding death and outsmarting the woke elitists hell-bent on killing her.
The Hunt is cinematic confirmation bias, mistaken as balance. At the risk of sounding convoluted, cancel and fake-woke culture deserve a reckoning because few critics can provide an exact definition of what “cancel” or “fake-woke culture” is that’s not lost in the social media ether. Each term’s varying levels of significance and meaning depend on the listener and speaker, the sign and the signified. The gory thriller is somewhat aware of the disintegration of definition prevalent on the internet which has given rise to each term’s misuse. Understanding how these words have, in essence, become meaningless because their broader connotations are ill-defined.
However, the film falls into the same bear trap. A surprise considering Damon Lindelof, the creator of HBO’s introspective Watchmen partly wrote the script. Because the screenplay’s critique is inertly devoid of any significance beyond a string of buzzwords and jargon meant to elicit back slaps from each extreme of its audience: whether woke or not. Its comedy relies on watching elites who are weary of offending, yet satirizing their self-perpetuating cycle for offending. The anti-wokers’ fall into a similar path of blatant racism, xenophobia, and Second Amendment arguments thrown back into their faces. While some bits hit: from critiques of NPR to gun rights, in totality it’s a cacophonous tit-for-tat, which welcomes dull echoes. Because great satire, as The Hunt references in George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, is often an explanation and ridicule of power dynamics. It’s sharp and biting, not a cudgel. But Zobel’s thriller operates flatly: employing the Syrian refugee crisis as a subplot with no regard for inspection beyond trivializing.
Moreover, without much world building, the narrative rarely reaches beyond its conceit for any thoughtful exposition, making the final act a rudderless ordeal. Even the climactic fight scene between Crystal and the mysterious mastermind of this killing spree April, stretches on for an interminable span as its spirit quickly dissipates. Mostly because there’s an oddly placed flashback sequence that disrupts whatever story might be had in this messy 90-minute charade. A shame because Betty Gilpin as Crystal carries the film, digging for the only depth present in this shallow “satire.” Zobel’s films oscillates between not wanting to be taken seriously, but very clearly wanting to be taken seriously. Its indecisiveness is more divisional than its subject matter. And though it talks a big game, and could be great if it sharply ridiculed today’s online culture, it ultimately comes home empty-handed.