Late last summer, “The Hunt,” a mean little horror/satire from the clever devils at Blumhouse, looked like a culture war casualty. The movie’s fanciful premise — that a bunch of blue-state Americans were killing some of their red-state fellow citizens for sport — upset a few people who hadn’t seen it and who may have been looking for something to get upset about. Can you imagine: A liberal Hollywood blueprint for anti-conservative violence!
You can’t, because it isn’t. As a rule, movies take the side of the prey, not the predators, and American liberalism survives partly by poking fun at its own. After mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso inflamed the political atmosphere even further, Universal decided to postpone the release of “The Hunt,” a response that dovetails, oddly enough, with a plot point involving corporate reactions to politically uncomfortable “optics.” There’s also a lot in the movie about how online hysteria bleeds into reality, which makes it seem at once prescient and redundant
Now that we are all freaking out about other things, “The Hunt” can be seen for what it is: an almost-successful attempt to do for class and ideology what Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (also a Blumhouse production) did for racism. That’s the setup, anyway, and to say much more about the twists and turns that follow would be to ruin a few surprises, and perhaps also pre-empt some disappointment. I’ll do my best, but proceed with caution in any case.
What you’ve heard about the movie is more or less true. A cabal of “elites” — Champagne-drinking, private-jet-flying snoots who hate the (unnamed) president — round up a bunch of “deplorables,” who are drugged, gagged and dumped in a field. (I’m using the terminology preferred by the characters and the filmmakers. Craig Zobel directed, working from a script by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof). A crate appears containing a live pig and a cache of deadly weapons, just to make things sporting. But the unseen hunters, using bullets, grenades, booby traps and arrows, quickly cull the deplorable herd in explosions of blood, brains and viscera.
Some of the hunted are played by recognizable actors — Ike Barinholtz, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, among others — which may fool you into thinking you can pick out the designated survivors. (Later, an actual Oscar winner shows up as the head of the hunting party). It doesn’t quite work that way, but I don’t think it gives too much away to note that you will end up spending a lot of time with Betty Gilpin’s Crystal, a Mississippian with impressive combat skills. She isn’t like the others, some of whom know exactly what’s going on. She talks less, notices more and seems to carry a different kind of anger.
Rage — shared by characters on both sides, even as they direct it at each other — is what “The Hunt” is all about. Anger is the source of its humor and its horror, both of which are fairly effective. The fights and shootouts are brisk and brutal. The dialogue pops with inventive profanity and familiar varieties of name-calling and woke-speak. Zobel, two of whose earlier features (“Great World of Sound” and “Compliance”) were shrewd, showy studies of power and deceit, is skilled at keeping the viewer off balance, in a state of queasy, slightly guilty anticipation for the nastiness to come. Cuse and Lindelof, recent collaborators on the HBO series “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers,” are slumming a little in genre-movie territory, and maybe also trolling some of their fans.
The targets are easy and the caricatures are blunt, but the filmmakers aren’t inflaming passions so much as soothing them with laughter and mayhem. They’re trying to make a movie that everyone will like about how Americans hate one another.
That’s a tricky needle to thread, and “The Hunt” manages the trick by being a good deal less provocative than its subject matter. Its satirical fire is aimed not from the left or the right, but at both (not quite symmetrically) from an unmapped middle, an unpolarized, perhaps imaginary place from which plagues can be called down on both partisan houses.
Not that actual political parties are mentioned, part of an overall strategy of coyness when it comes to contentious real-world subjects. Some of the deplorables wear baseball caps, but none say “Make America Great Again.” Nearly everyone onscreen is white, which the movie deals with in the way that the Oscars often do, by offering up a few self-conscious jokes. The migrant crisis in Europe pops into view and then fades away again.
What “The Hunt” expresses — as distinct from what it depicts — isn’t vengeful intolerance or self-pitying resentment, but frustration. It amounts to a protest against the hyper-politicization of everything, an attempt to reclaim popular culture as a demilitarized zone in the midst of our collective rhetorical forever war. This is admirable, but by the end it also feels halfhearted, as what looked like a dystopian fantasy turns into an exercise in wishful thinking.
Rated R. They don’t call them red-blooded Americans for nothing. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.