Zobel: The Hunt (2020)

While Blumhouse films often have a satirical component, the studio has branched out into a fully-fledged horror-satire melange with Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, one of the most tantalising genre fusions of 2020. So much happens in this film, and our perspective shifts so many times, that it doesn’t make sense to give a wholistic plot overview from the outset, beyond the fact that it revolves around human hunting – but with a twist. In the opening scene, we watch as a group chat unfolds on a smart phone, in which the participants alternately disparage Trump, allude to an upcoming hunt at a place called Manorgate, and agree to delete the chat after finishing it. We then shift to a private aircraft, where a series of wealthy elites chat about caviar and champagne, before a man stumbles out of the baggage hold. We learn that he “woke up too early,” meaning he has to be killed here – which is he is, in an especially gruesome manner, before his body is tossed aside with the contemptuous insult of “redneck.”

We then transition to what seems like the film proper – a collection of random people (the ones who didn’t wake up on the plane) waking up in the middle of a forest. Since all of them are gagged, their first visual impressions of the landscape, and each other, are very heightened, suggesting that we might be in for a conventional suspenseful thriller – perhaps a more adult version of The Hunger Games, or a darker version of Lost, since Damon Lindelhof is one of the main screenwriters here. After a while, the characters converge on a giant wooden box, in the middle of a clearing, which contains an arsenal of weaponry – and as soon as they discover it, shots break out from a nearby bunker. It’s not just gunfire that these abductees have to face, however, since they’re quickly subjected to an array of gory deaths that kills them off much quicker than expected – so quick, in fact, that it soon becomes clear this isn’t going to be the kind of survival narrative we’d normally expect from human hunting.

Within only ten minutes, all but three of the main cast have been killed – including some big names, like Emma Roberts – while the ultra-violence has become so gory and cartoony that it’s started to veer on satire, albeit without ever quite losing sight of the horror elements either. What makes these early scenes so powerful, however, is that it’s quite unclear who this satire is directed at, making for a provisional and emergent tone that’s never quite resolved until the closing scenes, so fluidly does the film morph from one possibility to the next. For the moment, it looks like we might be in for a satire of gun-toting Republicans, who see the hunt as a justification for the right to bear arms – a decisive argument for gun culture.

This is certainly a part of the film, but as the survivors are whittled away, we discover that the hunt has been conducted by the liberal elite, creating a more complex satire in turn. The tipping-point comes about half an hour in, when several of the abductees appear to escape the property where the hunt is occurring and take refuge with a kindly couple in a service station. As it turns out, this couple are part of the hunt, disposing of most of the remaining survivors mercilessly while lamenting their ignorance around climate change, bickering about Big Sugar, debating whether “black” or “African-American” is the right term, conceding that all their insights stem from NPR, and sighing that “white people are just the worst.” The result is a bit like watching liberals from the perspectives of conservatives, since from hereon out the survivors read even the most benign liberal tableaux – especially the most benign – as respositories of ultra-violence, meaning that guns have to be locked and loaded at all times.

In these early scenes, then, the hunt seems like a genocide of Trump supporters, or people who believe Fox News, producing a parodic paranoia around the moral certainty of the liberal intelligentsia – we have killers with names like “Julius” and “Miranda,” killers who pride themselves on reading The New York Times – that never quite discards the ridiculous excesses of Republican voters either. As far as the huntees can tell, the hunters are simply killing people because they can’t critique their own whiteness as eloquently as liberal elites, while treating the hunt as their own personal NPR story. It’s notable that all the victims are white – our first real hint that the hunt isn’t simply about politics, but about classism; a way for white liberal elites to punch down on the white rural poor under the serene guise of political progressivism.

Zobel thus strikes a fine balance between parodying the classism of liberal elites and the paranoia generated by liberal elites – a balance that keeps the satire remarkably nimble and mobile, until it feels more directed at the heightened forms of discourse, especially online discourse, that has characterised both ends of the political spectrum during the Trump era. This balance is mirrored in the constant reframing of the location of the hunt – initially the abductees are told that they’re in Arkansas, as if to reassure them that they’re in their natural habitat, but it quickly feels like this should really be unfolding in upstate New York, on a property adjoining the family home in Get Out. Sure enough, we’re soon told we’re in Vermont, before the action finally shifts to Croatia, only to conclude with a third act that takes place in an exact replica of a wealthy Vermont house, fusing New England and Eastern Europe.

This unique approach allows the film to remediate a genre that now feels quite historicised and remote – the conspiracy thriller. Conspiracy films bloomed in the 70s and reached a high-concept peak in the 90s with releases like Conspiracy Theory and The Game, which The Hunt often recalls. However, conspiracy dramas have been so thoroughly co-opted by the extreme right that they’ve faded from mainstream view in the 00s and 10s, especially since they now nearly always present liberal (or even centrist) views as the source of all evil. Zobel’s unique horror-satire captures this new conspiratorial mindset perfectly, preventing us from identifying too strongly with the right-wing characters, but refusing to permit us the “critical distance” of the hunters as well, since it’s that distance that drives the hunt in the first place.

The second act of the film thus plays as a conspiracy thriller, as the last few survivors, led by Betty Gilpin, played by Crystal Creasey, have to figure out where the hunting ground ends. As they move outwards from where the woke up, their journey visualises the conservative paranoia about the reach of elite liberal influence, and the presumed purview of the liberal Deep State. They grow especially suspicious of even the slightest efforts to “educate” or “liberalise” them, since the hunters appear to have thrown in a series of life-lessons to make the huntees see the error of their ways before they die, prompting one of the survivors to use the entire hunt as proof that the border issues of the Trump era were all performed by “crisis-actors.” As it becomes harder to distinguish real life lessons from the hunt, we start to segue into the eerie worldview of QAnon, where every liberal protestation is the cover for an agenda of unspeakable perversion, and where anyone vaguely liberal is automatically complicit in it.

This conspiratorial mindset perhaps explains the peculiar intensity of the violence in The Hunt, which mainly focuses on exploding bodies, along with bodies that are penetrated from gruesome, awkward and abject angles. At a general level, this works to keep the horror-satire balance fresh, since the most revolting tableaux are typically intercut with the hunters correcting and chastising each other for their lack of cultural sensitivity. As someone who aspires to be woke myself, this is a pretty good parody of woke chat, right down to the bearded white hunter who congratulates himself because Ava DuVernay retweeted him. At times, these scenes reminded me of The Cabin in the Woods in their quite exhilarating alternation between ultra-violence and the tittering, twittering micro-critique going on behind the scenes (one of the hunters is actually named “Liberty”) although The Hunt is probably even sharper in its horror-satire, and certainly builds to a more unusual conclusion.

This violence also captures the conservative perception of liberal politics as a kind of violence – and especially as a kind of violence to the human body. Literalising the old conservative adage that vegans care more about animals than people, the hunters do indeed kill conservatives in a variety of abject ways, and yet lament the death of their pet pig “Orwell.” More specifically, the exploding heads and punctured bodies capture a visceral fear of liberal brainwashing and mind-violence, and an even deeper conspiratorial suspicion that the ultimate liberal project is to compromise the sanctity of the white Republican body. It’s the kind of film that makes you realise why Republicans get so anxious about trans issues, or abortion rights, since the hunt targets the bodily autonomy and integrity of the abductees above all, until the film’s satire expands further to encompass a lurid Trumpian fantasy of what America means: fleeting liberal psychos in the woods while those same psychos try to collapse the USA into Eastern Europe, and reduce conservatives to refugees in their own land.

Yet the film never exclusively targets Trump supporters, since this conspiratorial vision evolves at the same time as the motivations of the hunters. Beyond a certain point, their targets aren’t simply Trump voters, or Fox News viewers, but “hicks” – the white urban poor, who need to be disposed of regardless of their political affiliation, and who tend to be disposed of especially brutally when they presume to come from the coastal elite regions (one of the first to die hails from Staten Island). Liberal white politics segues seamlessly into liberal white shame at the white rural poor, as we start to realise that the hunters have more venal motivations than political or ethical cleansing, even or especially at their most self-righteous.

These tendencies build around two key tipping points that usher in the third act of the film. In the first, Crystal kills all the hunt participants except the co-ordinator, but still decides to go after her. When asked her motivations by the hunt organiser – the second last to die – she can only respond with an inchoate noise, as if to capture her need to fight back against the unspoken and unspeakable class warfare embedded within a certain kind of white liberal discourse. For the next tipping-point we briefly shift back eight months, and finally meet the hunt co-ordinator, Athena Stone, played by Hilary Swank, in a meeting with two other members of the executive branch in the corporation where she works. Now the full meaning of the opening text message becomes clear – it was a humorous exchange about killing Trump supporters that went viral after a series of actual Trump supporters reposted it, costing Athena her job, along with the other chat participants. Instead of accepting their penance,  Athena and her friends decided to create the very scenario they’d all joked about, abducting and then hunting down the people who called them out, to take revenge for being cancelled.

The horror-satire now crystallises around cancel culture in the third act – and this is probably the best take on cancel culture I’ve yet seen in film, since The Hunt doesn’t exactly affirm or deny its existence, but instead parodies the escalating ways in which it is formulated as a topic of debate in the first place. Perhaps the best way to describe the film’s opinion on the existence of cancel culture is as a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the one hand, the conservatives call out the liberals for trying to cancel them and their President, while the liberals retrospectively justify being cancelled by actually enacting Manorgate, so at least they can say they were cancelled for something. In both vases, the very existence of “cancel culture” as a rallying call converges on a deeper, more latent and more politicsed form of cancelling.

Whereas the cancels want to cancel out perceived liberal privilege, the liberals’ desire to cancel conservatism is also driven by a certain horror at the rural poor as well. While never completely reducing Trumpism to class, the film does capture the relation between Trumpism and class more dynamically than any I’ve seen – and, again, it probably took this unique horror-satire fusion to really achieve that. Hence the final standoff, which takes place in Athena’s kitchen – or rather a simulacrum of Athena’s Vermont kitchen, transplanted to Croatia – where Athena flexes by condescendingly showcasing her middle-class comfort, culminating with her instructions to Crystal on the exact etiquette of cooking a grilled cheese.

In a terrific final twist, however, Crystal suggests that Athena may have got the wrong Crystal, since there are two women in her hometown with that name. For a brief moment, Athena has to contemplate Crystal as a liberal, as Zobel elasticises the space between hatred of Trump and horror of the white rural poor – the very cusp where anti-conservatism segues into classism. We glimpse, at this moment, a sadistic pleasure in torturing hicks that goes above and beyond political convictions, and isn’t all that different from conservatives’ own love of liberal-baiting. Yet Athena can only process this continuity for a moment before she gets stuck into Crystal for the final standoff, which intensifies all the ultra-violence of the film, but finally pushes its comic overtones into full slapstick. It’s like watching a Twitter feud translated into an action sequen – the visceral cruelty and sheer nastiness of the violence beautifully captures the bad-faith quality of so many online arguments during the Trump era.

In these final moments, The Hunt approaches a kind of parodic torture porn, taking a horror subgenre that hasn’t really been revived since its peak in the mid-2000s, and questioning whether it was part of this anxious wrestle around the sovereign white body all along. During this scene, I alo realised what ultimately made the film’s violence so gory and comic – the trend of characters responding to injuries, or injuring others, in ways that exacerbate their own injuries in the process. This makes for some really ingenious and intriguingly atonal violence that ends, here, with Crystal using a shard of metal sticking out of her chest to stab Athena too, as the two fall back on the floor, and Athena realises, with a shock, that Crystal has read Animal Farm as well. While Crystal survives, returns to Athena’s plane, and offers all the staff champagne and caviar, the film remains politically ambivalent until the last, since for all this display of class solidarity, we still don’t know how Crystal votes – and we never find out. Instead, The Hunt is directed squarely as the hysterical space of a certain kind of social media discourse during the Trump era, and the ways that conservatives and liberals hallucinate each other – all of which feels doubly cathartic, and doubly horrific, in our current, amorphous space between Biden’s victory and Trump’s concession, whenever that may be.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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