As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. Consider yourself warned.
So, how’s everybody enjoying their time in quarantine? Yeah, I know. Me too. And one of the most depressing things for me is the inability to go to the movies. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the convenience of streaming/video-on-demand, especially now. But for me, it will never replace the theater experience. The theater is my church – so to not be able to go really, really sucks. But it is what it is for right now, and at least some of the studios are easing the pain by making their current theatrical releases available via streaming – one of them being The Hunt. And while the rental price of $19.99 is pretty steep compared to typical rental prices – when you think about it, it works out to approximately the cost of a couple of theater tickets, so, okay.
For those unfamiliar, the trailers for The Hunt caused controversy last year, showing people hunting other people for sport – but after the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, Universal wisely decided to pull it. But what is the flick really about? Well, in a nutshell it’s what you get when you throw current politics, The Purge, and The Hunger Games into a blender. And whether or not the result is successful is going to be different for everybody.
Our story starts with a group of friends texting back and forth – one of them insults the President, and the comments that follow start talking about hunting “deplorables” at “The Manor.” Next thing we know, we see a redneck-looking guy waking up on a posh, private jet. The others on the plane try to take him down but are woefully poor at doing it. But then one woman takes charge and finally does the guy in by shoving a stiletto heel in his eye. The woman, named Athena (and played beautifully by the awesome Hilary Swank), is clearly the boss and nonchalantly drags redneck dude away.
Then we cut to a pretty blonde (Emma Roberts, in an all-too-brief appearance) – whose name we never find out and in the cast list is credited as just “Yoga Pants” – waking up in a field with a horse-bit type gag in her mouth. Gradually the view widens to show a bunch more people waking up in different parts of the field. Yoga Pants wanders a bit and sees another similarly-gagged woman (Betty Gilpin) crouching by a pond. She watches as the woman, whose work name tag says “Crystal,” uses the pin and a leaf on the water as a makeshift compass. Yoga Pants calls to her, but she doesn’t seem to hear and disappears into the woods.
After everyone’s initial disorientation wears off, their mutual focus falls on the giant crate in the middle of the field. One brave soul ventures toward it and opens it up with the crowbar that’s been conveniently provided. Everyone takes cover, expecting it to explode or something – but all that happens is a cute little piglet wearing a shirt comes running out and takes off. The brave soul who opened the crate then ventures inside and drags out the rest of the contents, a huge cache of various weapons – rifles, pistols, knives, you name it – basically the hard-R version of Hunger Games’ cornucopia. As everyone starts grabbing weapons, Yoga Pants finds the keys to the padlocks on their gags. She unlocks one guy’s gag (Justin Hartley, known only as “Trucker”) and he in turn unlocks hers. One of the others then tries to hand Yoga Pants a gun, but she’s freaked out by it in a snow-flaky kind of way. He just scoffs at her, wiggling his finger at her, saying, “Can you do that?” Of course, she’s like, “Well, yeah.” He shoves the gun at her, saying, “Then you can pull a trigger.”
Then shots start ringing out, and Yoga Pants takes cover behind the crate with Trucker while others scatter into the woods – quite a few of them get taken out in the assault. And before Yoga Pants can finish a sentence, blam – she gets splattered all over Trucker dude. He goes running for the woods like everyone else, following a chick (Sylvia Grace Crim, known only as “Dead Sexy”) who ends up falling into a pit full of punji sticks. Trucker helps her out of it, only to step on a mine – which kills him and blows Dead Sexy right back onto the punji sticks. Eww.
A few survivors make it deeper into the woods and eventually come to a road. They start climbing the barbed-wire fence and then a volley of arrows take out another one of them. The remaining three, known only as “Staten Island,” “Big Red” and “Vanilla Nice” (Ike Barinholtz, Kate Nowlin, Sturgill Simpson), get over the fence and follow the road to a rundown, backwoods-looking gas station. Clearly, none of them have ever seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where one of the major take-aways is don’t go to the gas station. But they go in as we know they must, and find the kindly owners, Ma and Pop (Amy Madigan, Reed Birney) to be all kinds of friendly, letting them know that they’re in the great state of Arkansas. Staten Island demands to use their phone to call 911 – but when he does, the operator seems anything but concerned. And then Big Red starts choking on a poisonous marshmallow she stole. And then, big surprise, Ma and Pop pull out their guns and blow them all away. And as they drag the bodies into the back room, they get into this whole argument that would be funny if it wasn’t so annoyingly pathetic. They can’t have any kind of decent conversation because they’re both so busy being offended at what the other says.
Then Athena radios them, asking if everything is okay there and letting them know that there’s another “deplorable” headed their way. Ma and Pop quickly reset the scene and smile for Crystal as she walks in. They go through the whole script again, and Crystal asks to buy some cigarettes. Ma pushes the cigs, matches and change at her – a fatal mistake, because Crystal knows exactly how much a pack of cigs costs in Arkansas, and Ma gave her the wrong change. And Crystal wastes no time in blowing them both away with the attitude of a professional. Crystal then heads outside and goes to take the pickup truck – only to find it’s rigged with a bomb. She then starts pulling at the bumper and rips off the fake license plate to reveal foreign plates underneath. She listens to the radio traffic and hears that more hunters are coming, so she hides – watching as a drone flies in and checks out the area.
Then the drone gets shot down by another survivor, Gary (Ethan Suplee, actually credited as “Shut the F**k Up Gary”). Crystal comes out from her hiding spot and gripes at him for taking out the drone and giving away their location. She starts walking, following a set of train tracks, and of course Gary tags along. During their walk-and-talk, Gary, who’s a conspiracy-theory podcaster, dumps the info about “Manor-Gate”— where apparently that text message-thread from the beginning leaked and went viral. So Gary’s proud to say his conspiracy theory isn’t a conspiracy. It’s all real. But Crystal doesn’t seem terribly concerned about any of that – she’s far more focused on escaping. A train then comes along rather conveniently and they hop on, into a boxcar full of refugees. Crystal empathizes with them, seeing one of the women crying and carrying a baby – but Gary’s not buying their story, convinced that they’re all a bunch of “crisis actors.”
Now here’s where the flick takes a weird (and unnecessary) detour, as the train stops at some kind of military-run refugee camp. Gary tries uselessly to talk to the soldiers and tell them that the refugees are actors, but they’re not understanding him. And then in a surprising (or maybe not) twist, the lead refugee guy (Usman Ally, known only as “Crisis Mike”) turns to Gary and says in perfect English, “Don’t think they believe you,” – which of course, infuriates Gary – enough that he gets in a scuffle with the dude and ends up shoving a grenade down Crisis Mike’s pants – and he goes out in a huge explosion of gore.
Crystal and Gary get separated, and Crystal gets taken into an office where the bored-looking officers listen to her story, unimpressed until she manages to guess that, given the foreign soldiers, foreign license plates and the amount of time she was knocked out – they’re in Croatia. Because, yeah, I would’ve guessed that immediately, too. Crystal then gets released into gen-pop, where she meets up with another one of the hunted, named Don (Wayne Duvall) in the chow line. Then, rather conveniently, a G-man-looking dude shows up in an Embassy vehicle and takes them away. We’re assuming to the Embassy, right? But it isn’t long before Crystal’s Spidey-sense is going off. She then ever-so-gracefully shifts around in her seat and kicks the Embassy Guy out the window, much to Don’s shock and horror. Then she jumps into the driver’s seat and backs over the dude for good measure. Don’s appalled with her – until they discover that Embassy buy was packing. And then when they open the trunk, they find Gary, dead. Without even having to look, Crystal takes the knife out of him and she and Don start walking.
And it’s then that the flick takes another detour, this time down Flashback Lane, to show us how all this insanity got started. Cut to 8 months earlier, to a cushy corner office where we finally get to see Athena. Her bosses (JC MacKenzie, Tadasay Young) rake her over the coals – as PC as possible, of course – reading back to her the infamous text thread. Athena’s stunned, insisting that it was all just a joke – they can’t possibly believe that she and her friends would actually kill people for sport. And besides, she doesn’t even have a “Manor” – it’s just a 3-bedroom house with some acreage. But it doesn’t much matter what she says, as the damage is already done and widespread. Turns out everyone who participated in that text exchange has been fired from their jobs, their careers and reputations ruined – and Athena’s next up on the chopping block.
Then we see the whole lot of them, hanging out at Athena’s drinking wine and going through slides of all the people who would turn out to be the hunted – all of whom had something to do with either leaking the text thread or capitalizing on the controversy – for example, Gary got lots of mileage out of it for his podcast. And just like before in the gas station, Athena’s pals can’t have any kind of productive conversation because they keep getting offended by each other’s comments. Only Athena, who’s busy working out like a fiend, rises above the stupidity to keep things moving. When they get to Crystal’s photo, she focuses on her specifically – even though, as turns out, Crystal’s just a regular chick who works at a car rental place. Her only mistake was doing what so many of us do – going online and spewing venom without thinking about the consequences. Athena calls her their “Snowball” (a second reference to the book Animal Farm – the first being the cute little pig who’s apparently named “Orwell”).
So Athena and all of her buddies cooked up the plan 8 months earlier to make the “Manor-Gate” conspiracy a reality as a way of getting their revenge. And when we cut back to the present, night’s fallen and Crystal and Don have found their way back to the bunker, where all of the hunters and their ex-military trainer (Steve Mokate) are holing up – and arguing in their snow-flaky way about how their brilliant plan’s gone sideways and whose fault it is. Crystal and Don fight their way in and make quick work of them all – the last one to go being the ex-military guy. Crystal confides to him that she served as well, in Afghanistan (and this is the best scene in the whole flick thanks to Betty Gilpin’s distinctive performance). Of course, the only one not in the bunker is Athena. She calls out to her now-dead compadres, and getting no answer, then calls on Don. I know! Gasp! You mean Don’s in on it too? Well, we’re not sure. He looks guilty but insists to Crystal that he’s got nothing to do with them. But Crystal’s taking no chances. So after she dispatches Don, Athena dares her to come looking for her.
Crystal finds her way to the “Manor” without much trouble, and at the gate, Athena orders her to leave her gun in the mailbox or she’s not getting in. So Crystal does as she’s told and walks into the impeccably-decorated 3-bedroom house – where she finds Athena in the kitchen making a grilled cheese and waxing poetic about which cheese is the best for such a sandwich (it’s Gruyère, in case you’re wondering). The two formidable women go through a little more chit-chat where Athena does the typical Scooby-Doo thing and regales us all with the why’s of the whole thing, reading Crystal’s vitriolic online comment back to her. But of course, Crystal’s beyond caring about all that at this point. It’s time to fight, dammit! And an impressive fight it is, with excellent choreography and use of props. Each of them manages to stab the other, and as they lay on the floor next to each other bleeding all over the place, Crystal asks Athena why she called her “Snowball” – after all, Snowball was the idealist, the dreamer, the great public speaker. That’s not her at all. Athena’s shocked to realize that a “deplorable” like Crystal’s not only read Animal Farm, but can discuss it just as easily as Athena and her elitist friends can. But it’s too late now anyway, and all Athena can say is “Whoops,” before she dies.
Crystal then raids Athena’s closet (after somehow miraculously healing from that stab wound) for a stunning evening gown – then she takes Orwell the pig and heads for the airstrip. Needless to say, the pilot and flight attendant are surprised and scared to see that she’s the last one standing. But Crystal’s done fighting. All she wants is to go home. And as they get under way, the nice flight attendant offers her the same super-expensive caviar she offered to Athena and her buddies. Crystal invites her to have a seat and enjoy the caviar and champagne with her. The end.
So what’s the point of it all? Well, that’s the thing. I’m not sure. The Hunt is certainly successful at satire – it reflects back the pathetically funny state of our country’s current political climate with a huge dose of snark. But other than that, all the story really does is make everyone look like a**holes – red, blue or otherwise – even Crystal, who’s the closest thing to a “good guy.” The whole thing just ends up in a wash and nothing and no one really changes. So if the creatives behind the flick had some deeper meaning they were trying to get across, I didn’t get it.
I think The Hunt is best taken as an ultra-violent, darkly comedic action fest with a unique feature in Betty Gilpin’s awesome performance. The things she does with her facial expressions are absolutely brilliant – she makes Crystal into a strange, hilarious and dangerous character who you can’t take your eyes off of. But don’t expect to find much else going on under the surface with this one. The hype around The Hunt is really just that – hype.
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Written by: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Release Date: March 13, 2020
Run Time: 1 hr 30 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures