'The Hunt': Film Review

Women take over the most dangerous game.

Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank star in Craig Zobel's controversy-plagued thriller about elites stalking "deplorables."

There has always been something innately political about Richard Connell’s oft-filmed 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, about people hunting down other humans for sport, but never has politics played such an intrinsic and motivating thematic role in the yarn as it does in The Hunt. 

This exceedingly violent, conspiratorially charged and guiltily engaging action melodrama ultimately pits woman against woman in an almost farcically over-the-top death match, and what it sets out to say about our currently polarized society will be swallowed by some and spit out by others. Originally set for release last September but abruptly cancelled due to two mass shootings, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in August, this action-drenched roller coaster of a film tries to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to generating a tidal wave of violence — but it undeniably delivers the goods when it comes to action and impudence.

The Hunt wouldn’t be what it is without its leading lady, Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin of Netflix’s GLOW. Crystal is one of the hunted, an intended victim, but she endures by having her antenna up at all times, by never believing authority or someone else’s version of reality. She’s learned to be a brutalist, to keep her guard up, to never trust. For good measure, she’s also tough as tree bark.

Game for whatever the script throws at her, Gilpin pulls off the action moves, of which there are plenty, with sly elan. Crucially, she has a brazen, almost crazy side to her, a wide-eyed glee that can take over her whole personality for a spell. She can be scary.

Sometimes this is done for effect. On other occasions, she appears to get off on what she’s doing — killing members of the underdog team that’s supposedly taking on the quasi-fascists — in ways that make her eyes pop and roll in mock astonishment that sharply reminds one of Jodie Comer’s dazzling turn as the equally lethal Villanelle in Killing Eve.

The killing starts on a private plane and accelerates in a forest where the chosen “game” find themselves with locked metal bits in their mouths. So quickly are several sacrificed on the field of battle that it seems like little more than target practice for rich folks who may have paid for the privilege but obviously also feel that they’re doing society a service by eliminating a few more “deplorables.”

Characters who have only just been introduced are knocked off minutes later, and it’s clear that the filmmakers have spent an unusual amount of time dreaming up novel ways to maim, immobilize, fool and, when the time comes, obliterate those whose time has come. Crystal’s secret is that she never lets down her guard, and while she might do something foolish from time to time, she never forgets that this is an unforgiving world, with her life at stake at every turn. 

Writers Nick Cuse (Leftovers, Lost) and Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers, Watchmen) and director Craig Zobel (Compliance, Z for Zachariah) throw everything into the pot here and serve up something that — while neither deep nor terribly sensical — makes its points and centers on a main character who, inspiringly, remains one step ahead of all the affiliated hotshot guys in the story who think pretty highly of themselves as well. 

As the characters make their progress through a torn-up society, Zobel keeps the viewer off-balance with a series of encounters, some of which become confrontations and others of which turn deadly very quickly. The filmmakers go out of their way to surprise, to not allow their story to become predictable or conventional, to maintain a spirit of audacity. This doesn’t work all the time, but enough — and when the creators brazenly flip the chronology to provide an all-out mano a mano between Crystal and the boss of it all, Athena (Hilary Swank), the result is a prolonged and extremely violent face-off between the two women, the likes of which has rarely been seen before. It’s quite a scene.

The impulses that drove the filmmakers to channel their concerns about class power and conflict into a hoary old story like this clearly derive from widening societal divisions, political assumptions, the ruthlessness of the ruling order and the stealth with which the latter both hides and exercises its power. If these issues seem a bit too weighty to be resolved by a knock-down, drag-out fight between two women in a high-tech mansion, it’s also true that, toward the end, the filmmakers’ attitude becomes overly glib and pranky; there’s a notably serious gap between the gravity of the subject and the horror/action manner in which it’s presented. It’s as if the creators, after trotting out their profound concerns about the direction of society, suddenly felt the need to fess up to the fact that, "Hey, we’re kinda worried about the world, but we're just goofy genre guys at heart."

Production company: Blumhouse Productions
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Chris Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Steve Coulter
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenwriters: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Producers: Jason Blum, Damon Lindelof
Executive producers: Craig Zobel, Nick Cuse, Steven R. Molen, Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Volturno
Director of photography: Darran Tiernan
Production designer: Matthew Munn
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editor: Jane Rizzo
Music: Nathan Barr
Casting: Terri Taylor

Rated R, 99 minutes