The Hunt is sort of a box office disappointment– barely making the giant waves some expected after its free publicity over its controversial violent premise. But that's likely as much to do with the social distancing we're all practicing to slow the spread of coronavirus as it is the film itself.
While the film is by no means a slam dunk, it does have a lot to say about our current social moment. And it's worthy of further discussion from people who have seen it. Unfortunately, its messages are muddied. To really get to the heart of it, we'll need to go into spoilers, and we're going to want to compare it to a much more successful execution of these same themes. Luckily, it's by the same writers: Watchmen's Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse.
That being said, if it's not clear, we're going to get into spoilers for The Hunt and HBO's Watchmen.
In The Hunt, billionaire liberals led by Athena (Hillary Swank) kidnap a group of strangers, including Crystal (Betty Gilpin) and hunt them. Why? Despite what Fox News will tell you about the movie, it isn't just because libruls are evil and godless. In fact, the key to understanding the film is understanding this very buried meaning.
Many of the hunted "deplorables" instantly recognize this: Manorgate– a fringe conspiracy theory that Athena and her buddies joked about hunting conservatives at her manor in Vermont over text messages. After their phones are hacked and the text messages leaked to the public, people spread this conspiracy theory across the internet. One of them, Gary (Ethan Supplee) aka "Shut the f@#$ up, Gary" even has a podcast dedicated to exposing Manorgate and other conspiracy theories. In fact, the only thing connecting all of the deplorables is that they helped spread the Manorgate conspiracy.
Except it isn't true. At all. None of it. Just like Pizzagate. Just like Benghazi. Just like Fast and Furious. Just like Burisma. Just like Hillary's emails and the hundreds of people she has apparently murdered. Just like QAnon. It's all in the fevered imagination of a bunch of internet cranks.
Until the giant companies, all of these people work for decide they don't want to deal with the bad PR (of a conspiracy theory?) and fire everyone involved. So, what's a scorned liberal billionaire to do? Take revenge on the people who ruined their lives by playing out the very same ridiculous fantasy — getting together to hunt deplorables — that . . . ruined their lives? You know, like you do.
Sigh. So, we're left with a movie where we don't really know who we're supposed to root for. Do you want to root for the racist bigots who spread conspiracy theories? Well, no. But you also don't want to root for people who decide the proper reaction to losing their high powered jobs is murder.
We don't find out until the end, but Crystal is apparently an innocent in all of this. In a case of mistaken identity, she was picked up instead of the meth-head with the same name in her small town. Or maybe she's an unreliable narrator and is just messing with Athena and she really is the person who posted the mean internet comments? Either way, it doesn't really matter, as Crystal and Athena try to kill each other in a final standoff and then bond in their death throes over the fact that they both have read George Orwell's Animal Farm. Back to this in a moment. [Editor's Note: I miss this screening and when I read this I said "f***ing really" out loud and had to confirm this actually happened with Andy. It did. Back to the article.]
The film's best moments are actually some of the knowing self-owns by the liberal billionaires, but there's only so many jokes about NPR tote bags that can land. There is a moment where someone suggests they need to have greater diversity in the people they'll hunt because just hunting white people is obviously racist. Sigh. Good joke. But obviously out of touch billionaires.
And here is the crux of the satire of The Hunt: you can't trust power.
This is, of course, the basic message of The Most Dangerous Game, the century-old novella, and numerous film adaptations. It's always some bored, rich person who decides they want to hunt people. And seriously? You can't tell me it isn't at least plausible that Jeff Bezos could have an island where he murders people. Of course, he doesn't. But given the monstrous acts of people like Jeffrey Epstein (speaking of conspiracy theories), we know rich people can get away with pretty much anything they want.
It's also the final message of Animal Farm. While a thinly veiled critique of Lenin and Stalin, it's also a fable about human nature. When the pigs in the final pages begin walking on two legs and wearing the farmer's clothes, it's apparent that they have replaced the farmer's oppression of the animals with their own form of oppression. In both cases, the boss at the top isn't the one doing the actual labor, they're just skimming off of everyone else.
This is the irony of The Hunt, but also far better exposed in a film like Parasite. Indeed, so many of these themes above are also better explored in Lindelof and Cuse's Watchmen on HBO.
In an alternative future where President Robert Redford pushed through reparations to victims of the Tulsa Massacre, politics are somewhat turned on their head. In the first episode, a black police officer racially profiles a white man as someone who might be a supporter of The Seventh Kavalry (spoiler: he was) and the power and racial roles are reversed as they go through a traffic stop.
One of our heroes, Angela Abar (Regina King) is a former cop who now wears a mask to protect her identity, Police are allowed to wear masks, although firearm use is restricted. When they are finally allowed to get access to their guns, they are asked the central question of Watchmen:
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guards themselves? Who watches the Watchmen?)
They answer in militaristic unison: Nos custodimus! (We guard/protect)
This is, of course, an unsatisfactory answer. The question of "Who watches the Watchmen?" is the central question of all government and politics. Whatever force you imbue with power you must also create some check on that power. And when you live in a world of costumed vigilantes, or superpowered gods, how can you possibly place a check on them?
One of the main themes of Watchmen is that there is no such thing as incorruptible power. Everyone in authority is to be distrusted not because they're bad people but because power is, itself, corrupting.
How will we place any sort of check on capitalism that allows people to be so unaccountable that they could hunt other human beings for sport or revenge? How will we place any restrictions on free speech knowing that people are misusing it on social networks to spread conspiracy theories? More importantly, should we? Because we know full well any power we'd create could be just as easily abused.
While I am by no means a libertarian, I understand the libertarian critique of all government power. But as a progressive liberal, I'm also distrustful of concentrated economic power and governmental overreach. The basic progressive answer to "Who Watches the Watchmen?" is that universal democratic participation and transparency can contravene concentrated power and place a check on it through free and fair elections, speech, protests, etc.
But it's what is ultimately so empty about The Hunt. There is no answer, there's only nihilism. Perhaps that's the intended message: that everything that is sick about our society right now can only lead to our destruction. Mayhaps, but it's a stretch from a film whose messages are so muddied.
At least we have Watchmen. And it's available to stream to aid in breaking the monotony of your social distancing.