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Crystal (Betty Gilpin) holds a rifle in The Hunt Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

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The Hunt director says he couldn’t worry which political side he was on

The satirical thriller that provoked the president actually dunks on everyone

Trailers for The Hunt, the ultra-violent Blumhouse satire that became a casualty of right-wing opposition last summer before resurfacing with a fresh marketing campaign in February, called the film “the most talked about movie of the year is the one nobody has seen ... yet.”

That was a cheeky way to position the thriller back when new movies seemed to still exist. But The Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel, will arrive in theaters after months of controversy amid a global health emergency unprecedented in modern times: the day before its official release, massive forthcoming blockbusters like Mulan, F9, and The Quiet Place Part II were postponed in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic. The Hunt isn’t just the most talked-about movie nobody has seen yet; for some, it might be the last movie they see for a while.

But maybe that’s the perfect way to put the theatrical experience on hold, even for a short period of time. Originally castigated by conservatives for its presumed plot — that a group of liberal elites had decided to hunt a group of “deplorables” for sport, a la Most Dangerous GameThe Hunt gleefully takes down “both sides” at a time when even the idea of “both sides” has become politically fraught.

”The goal of the movie was to try to make something that reminded us all of the moment that we’re in,” Zobel, who previously directed Compliance and episodes of The Leftovers, told Polygon last week, before the coronavirus pandemic radically changed daily life. “I feel like that’s what satire really does. I couldn’t have made the movie being worried about whether or not it was too much in one direction or the other. I think we all kind of knew what was funny and what wasn’t funny to us or what was amusing and what was not of the same spirit. I don’t think it would have been a very fun movie to make if we had been designing that or worrying about that too much.”

the liberal elites strike back in The Hunt Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

Written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, The Hunt takes place in an America where the rich liberal hunters are comfortable calling the unnamed president the “ratfucker-in-chief” and one of the hunted conservatives is excited about the prospect of appearing on Hannity if he makes it out alive (spoiler: he does not). But The Hunt subverts that premise at every turn, painting the MAGA-types as hysterical weekend warriors ill-equipped to take their online rantings into the real world, and the elites as hypocritical virtue signalers who speak in a kind of Twitter discourse-ese. While waiting around during a lull in the murder spree, for instance, one of the liberals is elated to find Ava DuVernay liked one of his Instagram posts. “A lot of this movie was me — parts of this movie that I found really funny was when I was making fun of myself in a way,” Zobel said. “I think Ava DuVernay is an amazing filmmaker, but she doesn’t need me to think that. She doesn’t need my accolade at all, she’s doing fine without that. I guess that was in my mind with the joke. What would these people be excited to be associated with?”

Only Crystal, played by Glow star Betty Gilpin in a performance as good as advertised, stands out as a moderate voice, left to fend for herself as the world around her shouts itself into oblivion. The film plays coy with her politics: she’s a Southerner with a secret whose allegiance to one side of the aisle or the other is never explicitly stated.

”Actors are always trying to play off their scene partners and listen to them a lot. The joke was the scenes worked better the less they paid attention to each other,” Zobel said. “Because that was the commentary we were making, that there was a lack of empathy right now but that is what we need. I do feel by the end of the movie, as a viewer myself, I feel uplifted by it or somewhat hopeful. I was not trying to make something that was incredibly, darkly cynical.”

the “deplorables” of the hunt Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

Maybe not, but it’s hard to be anything but cynical when the initial response to The Hunt spiraled so far out of control. Universal pulled its marketing campaign around the film last summer after a pair of mass shootings left dozens dead. Soon after, as Fox News picked up on alleged details about the film revealed by The Hollywood Reporter, President Donald Trump tweeted about The Hunt. “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves ‘Elite,’ but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite,” Trump posted on his social media outlet of choice in August 2019. “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!”

It wasn’t long before the movie itself was pulled off the schedule. The irony, of course, is that The Hunt is about what happens when people presume the worst and don’t care to investigate whether or not they’re right.

”I still trust that actually people watching the movie will get it. I trust if you watch the movie you’ll get we were making an absurd, silly romp of a movie,” Zobel said when asked if it’s even possible to make a satirical film any longer. “The underlying question behind your question I think is what do we do about the fact that people make assumptions about the intentions of things that they don’t know anything about yet? That they haven’t seen yet. I trust that people seeing the movie will understand our POV. That other question, the question of whether or not people who haven’t seen the movie will make assumptions of our POV is actually the subject of the movie.”

Indeed, a twist in The Hunt involves the origins of its central conspiracy theory and how bad faith can spin into worse action. “I would interrupt the sound mixer and be like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that line is in the movie,’” Zobel said of working on the film while the controversy around The Hunt unfolded. “People are going to think we put that in the movie afterward. I kept saying I wanted to make a movie that felt current. We were so current that we became involved in the thing we were trying to comment on.”

The Hunt is out now in theaters.