Now that it’s out, it’s clear Craig Zobel’s The Hunt was way more interesting as something that didn’t yet exist. Initially set for a September 2019 release, its concept of conservatives being hunted by members of the liberal elite stoked outrage on the right, all the way up to Donald Trump, who tweeted that it was made “in order to inflame and cause chaos.” He reasoned, stupidly, that the movie was evidence that: “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate!” Universal Pictures announced in August that it was canceling the film’s release after the one-two punch of the El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio, mass shootings.
Earlier this year, a new release date was announced: March 14. A new marketing strategy that luxuriated in the preemptive outrage was hatched: “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen,” was the tagline included in the updated trailers and poster (the latter of which featured quotes from the press that seemed to castigate the movie unseen, like “Demented and evil” from Fox News). But with social distancing practices apparently ransacking the weekend’s box office as fears over the novel coronavirus escalate, The Hunt has once again shown itself to be a trick lightning rod—one that seems highly capable of attracting a charge without quite having the functional ability to do so.
According to Variety, the film made an estimated $5.3 million during its opening weekend, half of what was forecasted and about a third of its $14 million budget. It is a movie that seems destined to be misunderstood and disregarded, as the world moves on to more important things like, you know, surviving a deadly virus and the potential economic collapse in its wake. That’s probably not a bad thing, in the grand scheme.
Incidentally, the blind outrage directed at The Hunt speaks to its point. I’m just going to spoil the twist here since virtually no one saw this in the theater. And though Universal has announced it will be released on demand as early as Friday, I have a hard time believing that people will pay $20 for it. (Prove me wrong!) The basic premise (via a script by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse) is, I think, an extremely clever setup: A leaked text thread among high-powered liberals that jokes about “hunting deplorables” at a manor leads to right-wing conspiracy theorists running with it, claiming that it’s real. “ManorGate,” they call it, in obvious reference to PizzaGate. When a few of those elites lose their jobs as a result of the leak, including Athena (Hilary Swank, whose identity is obscured for much of the movie and whose ultimate reveal seems to invest way too much in audience’s potential excitement for getting to see... Hilary Swank), they decide to make good on the conspiracy and carry out the hunt anyway. Conceptually, it’s a brilliant way to illustrate the broader tactics of the extremes of both sides of the political divide: paranoia for sport (owing to willful ignorance) on the right and petty retaliation (owing to the prioritization of ideology over humanity) on the white left.
It is perhaps fitting for a movie whose prerelease todo was much louder and more fervent than the reaction to its actual release that its ideas are better in theory than practice. As a satire—one containing violence so extreme as to be comical—it has plenty of license for exaggeration, but the way it sketches the political poles is sloppy and rife with stereotypes. The hunted conservatives are clad in plaid and ill-fitting denim (Emma Roberts, in what is essentially a cameo, has an impossibly blonde Fox News ’do). They do things like refer to Muslims as “illegals.” The liberals police each other’s language and wring their hands over potential violations in woke decorum. One gets excited over Ava Duvernay liking their post on social media. The movie is a cartoon, which makes both its attempts at horror and political commentary hard to take seriously.
In his analysis of the movie, Collider’s Matt Goldberg writes, “At worst, the writers see the left-wing and right-wing as equally bad, which is a form of political nihilism practiced by the dumbest of TV pundits.” If you don’t think about it too hard, there is a sort of leveling The Hunt does that jibes well with the growing sentiment regarding covid-19 that “we’re all in this together.” The Hunt just delivers a cynical reading of this, chalking it up to the worst of our human and political impulses. (We’ll all be in the end of the world together, too, and as a species, it will be all our own fault.) But then again, with Trump’s dissemination of misinformation regarding the virus seeming to have a trickle-down effect on his followers and other Republicans, it seems clear that The Hunt is, in fact, not THE. MOVIE. WE. NEED. RIGHT. NOW. Just a bit of data from an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll for you to chew on: Fifty-six percent of Democrats polled believe their day-to-day lives will change in a major way, versus 26 percent of Republicans. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats say the worst is yet to come, versus 40 percent of Republicans. Sixty-one percent of Democrats said they’ve stopped (or plan to stop) attending large public gatherings versus 30 percent of Republican respondents. Forty-seven percent of polled Democrats said they canceled (or plan to cancel) travel, versus 23 percent of Republicans.
Now is not the time to be divisive, but here we are, divided. There’s a right side here. Our ability to remain “all in this together” depends on us choosing it, collectively.