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The controversial horror satire The Hunt could use a sense of humor

The rich-liberals-hunting-Red Staters movie that was too hot for 2019 is hitting theaters

A determined-looking blonde woman in a simple light-blue blouse clutches a bloody hunting knife and stands with her back to an open car trunk with a body barely visible inside the trunk. Photo: Universal Pictures

It’s hard to imagine that yet another riff on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” could cause any controversy whatsoever. His yarn about hunting humans for sport has been adapted countless times, both officially and unofficially, in film and television. Yet somehow, Blumhouse’s action-horror movie The Hunt managed to cause enough hubbub for Universal to postpone its planned 2019 release. The outcry was a testimony to why mainstream movie studios treat politics as anathema: The rage over the initial trailer came down to a reactionary fear that the story, about rich liberals hunting poor red-state types for sport, was somehow condoning or encouraging similar hunts. Right-wing commentators cried foul, and even Donald Trump weighed in. Universal cited recent mass shootings as the reason it pulled the film, but the momentary furor couldn’t have helped.

At the time, hardly anyone — least of all the political pundits targeting The Hunt — had actually seen the film. But it seemed clear that the idea of “liberal elites” hunting “deplorables” for sport could only be taken as anti-conservative by the most literal-minded and/or bad-faith watchdogs. When, in any adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” have the hunters ever been the heroes? For the filmmakers’ part, they insisted that the movie was neither anti-conservative nor anti-liberal, and was simply being misunderstood by people who hadn’t watched it.

Now The Hunt is upon us, and it turns out that its political posturing is both what sets it apart from other “Dangerous Game” knockoffs, and its ultimate undoing. It’s understandable that the filmmakers have been reluctant to discuss the story in more specific terms, because The Hunt does have some unpredictability working in its favor, in spite of its familiar origins. The movie is, indeed, about rich left-wingers who drug and kidnap a group of “deplorable” conservatives, and place them in a controlled environment, to be picked off one by one. This isn’t depicted as sweet revenge; while some early deaths are played for dark laughs, they’re generic splatter-shocks without a spiteful edge. Having the victims deploy buzzwords like “snowflake” in the midst of the carnage doesn’t automatically make faceless, remorseless killers into the good guys.

A scruffy-looking, bloody-faced man crouches behind a huge wooden crate and clings to a handgun and a rifle, while a frightened-looking woman in pastels sits inside the crate, staring in his direction. Photo: Universal Pictures

There’s misdirection at work throughout the film, the showiest of which involves a Psycho-lite use of familiar faces before Crystal (Betty Gilpin) jumps into focus as the movie’s actual heroine. That might be a spoiler, if not for the way Gilpin carries herself. She strides into the movie with such assurance that even her more rococo performance choices, like playing Crystal’s stoicism with an almost Popeye-like tenseness in her chin and downturned mouth, register her immediately as the person we should be following through this war zone.

The filmmakers are careful to paint Crystal as a pragmatic, apolitical figure, and the lack of hesitation in her violence (she doesn’t want answers, she wants out) does set her apart from any of her fellow prey or her would-be predators. Eventually, though, the calculations reveal themselves. Giving Crystal a thinly sketched background as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan serves two narrative conveniences: It’s meant to explain both her extreme physical prowess (although, on the other hand, does it really?) and her utter lack of interest in the liberal-vs.-conservative sniping on the movie’s margins. So yes, this is another “political” satire that places undue faith in the questionable concept of neutrality — and stranger still, it imagines that ex-soldiers are particularly apolitical, rather than deriving specific feelings from their background and experiences.

These conceptual problems are pretty standard to Hollywood movies, and don’t completely diminish the enjoyment of watching Gilpin fight her way through a twisty maze of improbabilities. There’s an extended late-movie fight that’s particularly satisfying, one of the better combat sequences of the past year. If only the movie didn’t take so long, and spill so much ugly-looking CG blood, to get to that point. Director Craig Zobel, a David Gordon Green buddy who seems to be following his colleague’s eclectic path from thoughtful indies to Blumhouse/Universal horror, jazzes up the proceedings with lots of low-angle shots, whip-pans, and other Sam Raimi-ish camera movements that feel like they should be accompanied by sound effects. What’s lacking from his direction is an idiosyncratic or distinctive sense of humor.

Hilary Swank, in red pajamas, looks disdainfully toward something below the level of the screen, in a blue-lit space with framed scorpions and beetles on the wall, as three fully dressed people circle her. Photo: Universal Pictures

The funny stuff falls to screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse. (Not to be confused with Nick’s dad Carlton, who worked with Lindelof on Lost.) The junior Cuse may well be talented (he worked on The Leftovers, also with Lindelof), but Lindelof’s credit on this movie feels very much like a mentor fleshing out an enterprising, connected young writer’s supposedly killer screenplay concept. Unfortunately, this material has been workshopped by a pair of writers who, whatever their strengths, have no discernible ear for comedy. That early cry of “Snowflake!” is a bellwether for all the times Lindelof and Cuse expect hearty laughs of recognition for their easy, buzzy references to the Deep State, Reddit, and a clumsy spoof of the insane Pizzagate conspiracy theory, alongside even lamer bits about rednecks and guns.

A few cultural references, to the Bruce Willis movie Tears of the Sun and to Ava DuVernay’s Twitter presence, land because at least they sound specific, instead of like weak imitations of Very Online discourse. But it’s telling that the pop-cultural jokes are funnier than the political ones; The Hunt is clearly coming from career TV writers who haven’t spent much recent time outside of Hollywood, but sure have a bone to pick with Twitter. The movie’s mock-jaundiced attitude toward social media is itself satirical, and there’s a germ of a funny idea about how principled liberals can get entangled in pointless social media battles and infighting.

But it’s eclipsed by an unavoidably moneyed perspective that presumes privileged people are inherently liberal, rather than attacking the hypocrisy of rich liberals in particular. Only Gilpin and Hilary Swank (who plays one of the shadowy hunters) feel like human beings, by sheer force of performance more than the ways those humans are written. Crystal is supposed to cut through the other characters’ bullshit, but instead, Gilpin cuts through the filmmakers’. She’s well-prepared for a movie that’s more viscerally effective as exploitation than as satire.

The Hunt opens in wide American release on March 13.