Thursday 12 March 2020

The Hunt (USA 2020: Dir Craig Zobel)

Films about the increasing polarisation of the right and the left in America have been gaining traction recently; movies as diverse as Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman (2018), Jordan Peele's Us (2019) and The Purge movies have all taken slightly different approaches to the same subject. A number of 'state of the nation' movies have also emanated from Jason Blum's prolific Blumhouse company, an organisation generally associated with a reliable if un-revolutionary roster of projects; The Hunt's dark satire, also a Blumhouse production, is in another league.

Part The Hunger Games and Battle Royale (2000) nihilism, part The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and one part The Cabin in the Woods (2011), The Hunt's tricksy story resists lengthy narrative re-telling, but its premise is simple: a group of twelve disparate souls wake up in the middle of dense forestland - ostensibly Arkansas - and are picked off, one by one, by unseen assailants. This seems to be a planned exercise rather than random slayage, as a group text conversation at the beginning of the movie reveals. The victims are Trump's underclass, termed 'deplorables' (taken from 'crooked' Hillary Clinton's reference to Trump supporters in a 2016 speech) who hail from places like Wyoming and Orlando, and the attackers are drawn from the liberal elite. Broad brush strokes apply to the characterisation of both sides; it is naturally assumed that the 'deplorables' all know how to fire guns, assuming their collective right to bear arms, and the elite spend their time correcting each other's gender and race assumptions and ragging on about keeping healthy (there's a great gag when one of them drinks a bottle of soda, and is told that it's poison, by which is meant it contains lots of sugar - seriously, it's much funnier in context).

Out of all this class-based carnage emerges one working class woman, Crystal (an astonishing performance by Betty (Glow) Gilpin), who as an ex soldier is as skilled - if not more so - than her attackers in holding her own. Crystal works out what's really going on, and eventually tracks down the person at the top of the pile responsible for everything that's happened - Athena (Hilary Swank).

If I haven't already made this clear, The Hunt ain't subtle, although its blurring of who the real bad guys are is interesting. "This isn't a country, it's a business" comments one of the elite; "war is war" says another, and between those two quotes is the ruthlessness of the thing. But despite the broadness I had a good time with this, and enjoyed being wrongfooted along the way: I looked at my watch and at the 20 minute point a significant percentage of the cast were already dead, but that was merely Act 1, and for this reason until the emergence of Crystal there's no one character that you can hold onto, which, with the story's shifting perspective, makes it a hard movie to like. But of course that awkwardness is emblematic of the position America finds itself in today, and scriptwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse have mined a similarly zetgeisty vein to the conspiracy thrillers of the late 1960s/early 1970s; interestingly Zobel's 2012 feature Compliance dwelt in very similar morally ambiguous territory.

But the real prize here is Gilpin, whose character rises from the turmoil of the film's first half, a natural leader with a smirk and some lethal chop socky moves, who sees her way through all the bullshit - just listen to her southern take on the 'Tortoise and the Hare' story in which the Hare gets his own back, and you kind of know where you stand.

Has The Hunt set a new bar for post Trump movies? Possibly, but it has certainly set one for Blumhouse films (and it's temporary ban in the US last year can't have hurt), fast becoming the most interesting movie company working in the genre at the moment.

The Hunt opens in UK cinemas on 11 March 2020

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