Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Glenn Howerton, Ethan Suplee
Director: Craig Zobel
Writer: Nick Cuse & Damon Lindelof
Cigarettes in Arkansas only cost six bucks. You fucked up, bitch!
I didn’t know what to expect with The Hunt, you know? It’s an adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game,” which is usually fun (Surviving the Game, Hard Target), but the hype around its original cancellation and the extreme possibility that its politics would be handled poorly made me wary. Ultimately … it was okay, really good in some aspects, even! There’s one aspect that’s so good it makes me wish the rest of the movie was an all-time classic, or at the very least, it makes me hope for a sequel or two.
That aspect is the lead performance by Betty Gilpin. Watching The Hunt a second time, I was just as entertained and enamored by her contorting face and singular line readings as I was the first time.
The plot is simple enough. It’s your basic human-hunting-human story. The movie opens on a group chat where people are complaining about the latest eye-rolling blunder from the “ratfucker-in-chief” and how much better they’ll feel once they get out to the manor and hunt some “deplorables.” We’re quickly dropped into the type of film we’re going to be seeing. A perfectly-cast Glenn Howerton plays a douchebag on a private jet giving a flight attendant shit about caviar and champagne. Then a jean jacket-clad average Joe wakes up too early and has to be sloppily dispatched before the hunting can commence. The scene plays out the way the movie plays out: a little too obvious, but gory, fun, and absolutely saved by the casting.
The first chunk of the film is the obvious part I was talking about. These people—who seem either right-wing, poor, or working-class—wake up in a field with a big weapons chest in the middle of it and bits in their mouths. It’s like Saw meets The Hunger Games. There are some tired gags about the “snowflakes” and “climate change,” which are pretty played out, but I was surprised by another aspect. They do something that I normally like in a film where you’re not quite sure who the protagonist is. Several different characters seem to be our lead before they’re colorfully dispatched, but it all seemed so rushed and self-satisfied that I didn’t much care for it.
And then came Betty Gilpin.
Gilpin plays Crystal, whom we see early on creating a makeshift compass and trying to get her ass out of Dodge. Then she gets a wonderful introduction in a fake gas station where she seems meek, confused, and awkward until she knows she has the upper hand, and then all Hell breaks loose. Once Crystal becomes our main focus, everything snaps into place.
Even political jokes become funnier! For a while, she teams up with Gary (Ethan Suplee), who spouts of the clichéd bullshit about “crisis actors” and whatnot. Still, the jokes land because we have someone like Crystal—whose politics aren’t revealed, obviously, but she’s working class, pragmatic, and kind–which is good enough for me to bounce off of the craziness. It also helps that the crisis actor stuff gets setup and payoff, instead of being a quick, drive-by reference for people to chortle and say, “Yeah, I understood that.”
Craig Zobel directed The Hunt, which surprised me. His film Compliance is one of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever seen, whereas The Hunt is tongue-in-cheek and oddly fun the entire way through. We see landmines and grenades going off, and they all might as well have a big ACME sticker on them. Zobel certainly does a perfectly fine job, but it isn’t the directing that stands out.
Crystal’s backstory and character are perfectly laid out by Gilpin’s acting and the script work by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof. Cuse and Lindelof may have gone too obvious and lame on some aspects, but they hit the exact right notes for their lead. Still, I don’t think this movie would be half of what it is without the lead performance.
With the risk of this sounding like an ode to Betty Gilpin, easily my favorite moment in the entire film is when a suspicious driver is bringing Crystal and another character to safety. The more he talks, the more confident Crystal is that this guy is no good, so she slowly and deliberately grips the oh-shit bar above the window, lifts herself, turns herself, and slams her boots into his face. I can’t even explain why I found it so funny and badass.
If you can get over the hump of the first-third of the film, which absolutely feels like something you’ve seen before, then it’s worth watching the rest. Gilpin’s performance and the wild final action scene make it a horror movie treat, and if we don’t get more movies starring Crystal, then I hope this at least gives Gilpin a thousand other opportunities to shine.