BATTLE ROYALE...WITH CHEESE
The Hunt (15)
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz
Review: David Stephens
How movie studios deal with "controversy" over trailers and promos can seal a film's fate for good. With something like (and bear with us here) "Sonic the Hedgehog", the horrific early CG was reworked after it caused a huge backlash and it went on to become a box-office hit. More keeping in with genre, "mother!" used its polarising reviews and contrary word-of-mouth to create a genuine buzz in some promos. And in a similar vein, Craig Zobel's "The Hunt" should have been released last year, but more US shootings meant the bad-taste crew clawed it away momentarily from global screens, and avoided trial-by-media (and inflammatory Presidential Tweets about "Liberal Hollywood" apparently). Now it's being released in the US and UK, and after much delay, people can see for themselves what the fuss was about. With posters and promos hyping up the more "salacious" aspects of the previews, it's got something to live up to. So, we've "caught" a look at the film.
After a bloody prologue on a private jet, a group of strangers find themselves waking up in a forest with no idea how they got there. The group includes a mishmash of seemingly ordinary people like; Trucker (Justin Hartley), "Yoga Pants" (Emma Roberts), and Crystal (Betty Gilpin). After freeing themselves from their restraints, they find a large crate crammed full of weapons. And then the bullets, start to fly…. How does the mysterious Athena (Hilary Swank) fit into all this?
It's somewhat ironic that much of the controversy around "The Hunt" was caused by knee-jerk reactions on social media, and unfounded opinions about a film that most people hadn't even seen. Because that's one of the subjects that Zobel has targeted in this fun and gory fable! He must have been face-palming himself to oblivion when it all kicked off. Talk about missing the point! It's also arguable that the controversy (insert finger-quotes) that is being used as part of the promo is totally misleading. This isn't anti-left or anti-right. To be accurate it’s anti-extremist (or anti-far-left/right). From the synopsis, it sounds like "Battle Royale" with adults (or "The Hunger Games" for adults) and was partly based on the 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell. But the initial set-up is there to spark off some misleading plot developments and some hilarious OTT gore ("That nearly hit me!" & "Give me that gun, you snowflake!" being killer punchlines in context!). From there it evolves into a highly entertaining thriller/black comedy that takes pot-shots at everything from patronising liberalism to conspiracy theorists. If there's a serious political message here, is that the fringes of divided nations (take your pick) always target the wrong things… and the truth of anything lies somewhere in the middle.
But if that makes it sound too political (something which ALL reviews have latched on), it also works as a joyously demented thriller, that's wickedly smart and very meta. A lot of that rest on Gilpin's shoulders, and she's an absolute delight here. A simple Mississippi gal, her thin-lipped "Crystal" continuously strains her face in thought and says very little unless she needs to. But she turns out to be the best femme fighter since Beatrix Kiddo, and a hugely endearing character. Arguably the most "normal" person in the cast (apart from the… y'know… the bloody killing), she has some wonderful moments in the film, with her bizarre telling of "The Hare and the Tortoise" being a personal highlight. Some of her sequences match that of "John Wick" for fisticuffs choreography, and we can consider ourselves robbed if she doesn't appear in any more action-orientated movies.
The best thing you can honestly do with this film is to see it cold. Ignore all the furore around the previous screenings (and some reviews which have already marked it as being "over-hyped"). Take note of these facts; it has a great cast playing tongue-in-cheek characters, it has a smart script from Damon Lindelöf that pre-empts expectations and pulls the rug out from under you plenty of times during the screening, it is skilfully directed by Zobel ("The Leftovers", "Westworld"), and it does NOT favour the left nor the right. It is often hilarious, with some very dark silly humour at times, that satirises not only political beliefs and gun-control, but also action movies in general. Watch out for the "No more glass!!" moment. Brilliant. It is also very, very bloody, with a ton of gore that includes bisected bodies, head explosions, and grenades in underpants. If you were worried (as we were) that Blumhouse was losing its grip with disappointments like "Black Christmas" and "Fantasy Island", this film and "The Invisible Man" proves that it can regain a genre edginess again. We can look forward to similar projects. We had a blast with this, although some people seem to be having trouble enjoying it, we certainly didn't. Admittedly some moments miss their mark, but overall, this is hugely entertaining and a great way to thumb a nose at both sides of the political divides… while watching OTT cinematic bloodshed. Leave expectations at the door and just enjoy some bloody good fun