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The Hunt says it’s cleverly skewering everyone. Don’t fall for it.

The self-styled provocative bloodbath is a masterclass in botched satire.

A woman holds a gun.
Betty Gilpin is the only good thing about The Hunt.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Hunt was controversial before it was released — before, in fact, its release was delayed — and its marketing has aggressively played up the controversy, proclaiming that with this movie, “everyone is fair game.” It’s a movie about rich liberals who hunt working-class conservatives for sport, kind of. It’s about red versus blue, left versus right, elite versus salt of the earth. In this world, there are two kinds of people: rich snooty hypocritical globalist snowflakes who live in fancy houses; and gun-obsessed, racist hicks from places ranging from Staten Island to Georgia.

And here’s the big twist: Everybody takes a drubbing! Everyone gets made fun of! It’s hilarious; it’s provocative; it’s satirical!

It is not.

Let me be blunt: If The Hunt is what passes for satire in 2020, as I think it may, then we’re all — pardon my French — completely screwed. It’s a movie that fundamentally misunderstands what satire can do, the function it fills, and the way it works; it’s the cinematic equivalent of the guy on Twitter that makes an unnecessarily rancid joke, and then when people get upset at him, angrily tweets about how nobody understands satire.

Naw, man, it’s not satire. It’s just senseless.

What is satire? It’s humorous or ironic. It exaggerates and ridicules. It seeks to expose the follies of a group or of society at large, usually political. And, most importantly, it has a goal: to shame people into change, or action.

Perhaps the most famous satirical work of all time is Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay “A Modest Proposal” (full title: “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick”), which proposed that poor Irish people should sell their children to the rich as food in order to ease their money problems.

Swift, obviously (I hope), wasn’t actually proposing this. Instead, he was essentially writing in the voice of those who held cruel attitudes toward the poor, while also mocking inhumane British policies toward the Irish. The premise was that those who read it would recognize fragments of those views and understand, by way of Swift’s hyperbole, how ridiculous and cruel the ideas were. “A Modest Proposal” lays a template for modern satire, a rhetorical device designed not just to repeat the exaggerations of the ideas people mindlessly spew, but also show why they’re ridiculous.

Betty Gilpin in The Hunt.
Universal Pictures

And that is precisely why The Hunt fails. Rather than exaggerate the ideas it aims to skewer, it just repeats them doggedly, like a parrot without comprehension. Rather than dig at a particular behavior or mindset causing our national division, The Hunt acts like the symptoms are the problem — as if the slogans and bywords and hot-button phrases we slog through in the media are what deserve ridicule, in equal measure. It verges, if not plunges, straight into nihilism. What a waste.

The Hunt is empty, shallow, and devoid of anything approaching actual satire

I’d feel bad about spoiling the “twist” of The Hunt, except it’s barely a twist. So if you’re hell-bent on seeing the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, avert your eyes. Otherwise, read on.

In essence, here’s the plot, which reveals itself in pieces: Some fevered corner of the right-wing internet has concocted the notion that rich liberals, the kind who work in glassy offices and own vacation homes, round up a bunch of “deplorables” every year and hunt them for sport. This is silly (if only because the stereotypical liberal isn’t into guns), but it’s so silly that those selfsame liberals make jokes about going hunting in a group text to one another, which then gets exposed to national media somehow, which then reinforces the idea that this is actually happening. And so, those liberals decide, as long as people think they hunt deplorables for sport, they might as well actually do it. Right?

I mean, no. But this movie doesn’t believe anyone subscribes to concepts like “decency” and “human dignity” and “the milk of human kindness.” The closest thing to a hero in The Hunt is Crystal (an admittedly terrific Betty Gilpin, who is solely responsible for this film receiving any stars at all), a vet who wakes up in a field somewhere in the middle of nowhere with 11 strangers after being kidnapped and drugged, and has to find her way out while being hunted by snipers. She is, as you might have guessed, more than up to the task — even when she fights her way toward a confrontation with sleek, smug, liberal mastermind Athena (Hilary Swank).

Everyone else in the movie is lousy, though — dismissive, angry, violent, ready to murder at a moment’s notice. You could argue this is the movie’s way of satirizing “cancel culture” by exaggerating it a little (those who compare “cancelation” to actual murder might even dispute the idea that it’s exaggerated). But the movie isn’t satirical at all. It isn’t aiming to expose silliness in order to shame people into changing their mindsets. It’s not deftly pointing out the attitudes that lead to rancid divisions, or exposing the dangers of easy generalizations and swift judgments; instead, the movie just leans into those judgments and generalizations, over and over again.

There is the kernel of something interesting lodged in The Hunt that could have been explored — the idea that, by claiming something is true, fringe media might coax that thing into being, thereby both putting itself in jeopardy and also granting itself the joy of confirming its own suspicions. There’d be something intriguing about a satirical movie that shows how there’s a danger to the echo chambers we leave ourselves in, no matter your political persuasion. I’d have loved to see that movie.

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin in The Hunt.
Universal Pictures

But this potentially interesting idea handled so badly in The Hunt that it’s hard to grant the movie any serious consideration. It’s a sledgehammer of a film without a single original thought. It tries very hard to skewer everyone. Not offend them, in the way something like South Park might have; just repeat a lot of slogans you can easily read on the Internet.

The Hunt’s (delayed) release, as its luck would have it, comes squarely in the middle of a pandemic that’s shutting down cultural institutions and coaxing people to stay away from crowded places, like movie theaters. So it’s possible that the movie won’t be more than a blip on the broader conversation. And thus its inanity will, in all likelihood, be contained.

But since it’s touting itself as “the most controversial film of the year,” in which “no side is spared,” a “no-holds-barred takedown of red and blue states alike,” it’s fair game whether or not anyone sees it. No side is spared and no holds are barred because no shots are fired in The Hunt. It’s empty, juvenile, and pointless. Satire can be done well at the movies; The Hunt is so pleased with its offensiveness that, like the worst self-proclaimed provocateurs, it just falls flat on its face.

The Hunt opens in theaters on March 13. On March 20, it became available on a wide variety of on-demand services, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime and FandangoNow.

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