“The Hunt” is too safe to really be called a satire

The Hunt Betty Gilpin in The Hunt. (Universal)

The once-controversial story of “liberal elites” hunting people for sport has a provocative premise, but it’s far less than the sum of its parts.

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Satire is a tricky beast. When it works, it confronts and provokes. When it falls short, its provocations feel obligatory. There’s a thin line between the two, but the trickiest aspect is something altogether different: making something worthy of being called satire to begin with. Many works wear the guise of social commentary, and despite its promising premise, The Hunt is another attempt that suffers the same fate. As little meat as there is to chew on here, the questions at the center of Craig Zobel’s once-cancelled movie don’t come from its content. Instead, the film unintentionally begs the question, Just what passes as satire for some people?

Is it acknowledging politics to begin with? Possibly; at least that might be why The Hunt is okay restricting its allusions to Donald Trump to the term “ratfucker-in-chief.” It might also be why, for a movie with no real point of view, it still can’t bring itself to utter the words “conservative” or “Republican.” Has social commentary really become so literal that the baseline is to simply sift through a list of buzzwords? Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. Deplorables and snowflakes and globalist cucks, oh my!

Using Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” as its starting point, The Hunt’s setup is simple. A dozen strangers wake up in forest by a clearing. Among them are woman in a yoga outfit (Emma Roberts), a stereotypical veteran (Wayne Duvall), a manic gun-toter (Ike Barinholtz), and a beta male type (Ethan Suplee). The rest all blend together, but apparently that’s okay—it’s not like most of them are going to last that long. It’s about 10 minutes in that off-screen “liberal elites” start hunting them for sport, but not without some truly rough CGI gore effects to back them up.

There’s a basic economy to Zobel’s direction that, while never particularly inspired, gets the job done. Takes are long enough to follow the action; the pacing and shifts in perspective allow for some decent (if negligible) twists. The problem here is that none of it has any weight comically or dramatically, which is all the more surprising given the talent involved. The script from Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof wants to be brisk, but it’s too jumpy to ever truly find its footing beyond the action scenes.

Instead, the only true positive comes in the form of its protagonist, Crystal (Betty Gilpin). As pragmatic as she is reserved, this 30-something gives The Hunt a semblance of pathos, almost all of which come from Gilpin herself. Unlike Zobel, Cuse, or Lindelof, she understands that those who speak the least come off as the smartest. The star turns her role’s traits into something resembling a real person, and while it doesn’t always work, it’s far from her fault.

Rather, it’s the feeling that Crystal belongs in an entirely different (and much better) movie. From her backstory to her behavior, she’s a vessel for several themes The Hunt doesn’t even seem aware of. There are class-based implications that play into the pursuers’ treatment of Crystal and the others, but the script undoes this by equating economic standing with political views. Needless to say, this is thin and simply untrue. It also neglects other facets such as race, gender, or upbringing, resulting in a movie that pretends to be much more political than it actually is.

Has social commentary really become so literal that the baseline is to simply sift through a list of buzzwords? Unfortunately, that seems to be the case. Deplorables and snowflakes and globalist cucks, oh my!

And the trick to get around that? Try to offend or shock each audience member regardless of their own morals. It’s too bad that The Hunt is neither offensive nor shocking, though, winding its way through pointless diversions before reaching a rather effective fight scene at its climax. Weightless as it may be, it pivots for the better, buoyed by its cast and some perceptive, slick editing from Jane Rizzo.

Alas, it’s when Zobel’s film finally kicks into gear that it throws in the towel, ending before it truly starts. The Hunt may base its premise off an archetypal story, but what it doesn’t know is the difference between archetype and stereotype. A few decent moments it may have, but ultimately, it makes a mockery of itself.

The Hunt is now available to buy on digital and VOD.

The Hunt Trailer:

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