Hillary Swank and Betty Gilpin in Blumhouse’s ‘The Hunt’
The Hunt may be the unluckiest movie in modern times, at least since The Interview. The Blumhouse action comedy, about a handful of stereotypical “deplorables” who get kidnapped and hunted down by would-be “liberal elites,” was intended was a black comedy that happened to play in the realm of of-the-moment politics. A series of mass shootings and its (I would argue wrongful and unfair) inclusion in the political conversation led to a temporary delay from its September 27, 2019 release date. The film, which was intended to open right between Rambo: Last Blood and Joker, was then slotted for March 13, 2020 (yes, Friday the 13th), with a campaign that openly acknowledged the fabricated and ridiculous nature of the pre-release controversy. Alas, it then ran headfirst into a global pandemic just as theaters were starting to close.
Granted, its $5.3 million opening weekend was sadly right in line with Cats ($6.6 million) and Black Christmas ($4.4 million), which argued that audience disinterest, not political controversy or coronavirus fears, kept audiences away. With theaters shut down and the film now available to rent for $20 via “Premium VOD,” the film’s domestic box office total is just $5.8 million. That’s the second-lowest ever for a 3,000-plus release (behind, sadly, Blake Lively’s The Rhythm Section, but that’s a conversation for April 14). The good news is that the film has been earning buzz via its post-theatrical debut, and while it’s hard to tell if the film’s early VOD release is strong enough to actually make the film into a “hit” (it cost around $17 million, along with related marketing expenses), it has all the makings of a cult classic.
I’ve seen the film twice, including once via PVOD (my wife wanted to see it), and it plays even better the second time. Without going into spoiler-y details, the narrative choices in the first reel are even more impressive when you know what’s being set up, and the pre-release controversies are rendered even more absurdly ironic (the movie was inspired by “Pizzagate”) when you know the big reveal that takes place just before the climax. Moreover, the Craig Zobel-directed flick succeeds in its own modest goals, namely in being a funny, pointed and violent old-school exploitation picture which revels in the politics of the moment without remotely attempting to offer a solution and/or be a defining statement. But the reason it’s going to be a cult favorite is due to a knock-out performance from Betty Gilpin.
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that Gilpin offers a richly detailed and hilariously specific character study of a young woman who is just a little different. She has a ghoulish sense of humor, a total indifference to niceties and a keen awareness of the situation. Yes, she plays a (to use a cliché) total bad-ass, but she’s also genuinely odd. Her facial tics, her aggressive “thinking out loud” mannerisms and her deadpan observations make her far more entertaining than a stereotypical “strong but silent” female action hero. It’s exactly the kind of off-the-reservation character that actresses don’t get to play that often. It’s not quite the same thing but watching The Hunt just before a “first time in nine years” viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was illuminating.
She’s not “female Jack Sparrow,” but Crystal is exactly the kind of specific and unconventionally humorous starring role/character that we all claim to want from our popcorn entertainment. Whether she is on the spectrum, has PTSD (yes, she served overseas), or is just a square peg in a round hole, Gilpin’s protagonist is both unquestionably sympathetic and endlessly entertaining. And, yeah, that matters because it means that the movie isn’t just coasting on its premise or even its action sequences. Just as Curse of the Black Pearl offered a delightfully daffy co-star rather than just relying on its “Look out, skeleton pirates!” plot, The Hunt is enjoyable even when the guns aren’t a-blazing because its protagonist is just an unapologetic (and, yes, hypercompetent) hoot. Gilpin, at least as much as the film’s premise, is why the movie works.
While The Hunt works in terms of its topical premise, it also works as a pure star vehicle for a terrific actress sinking her teeth into a unique leading lady. Yes, that’s why folks took to Jessica Rothe’s Happy Death Day in 2017 (different character type, same star-driven triumph). I don’t know how much of Gilpin’s Crystal was on the pages of Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s initial screenplay, but the end result is the same. The Hunt, as a gimmick-driven action comedy, didn’t need a protagonist as unique and engrossing as its reluctant revenger. But that it got one is why the movie will live and flourish well beyond the scope of its momentary topicality. If it becomes a cult classic, it’ll be because of its leading lady more so than its elevator pitch.