Few short stories have impacted cinema as much as Richard Connell’s 1924 tale ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, which tells the story of a Russian aristocrat who hunts human prey on his remote island. Along with a direct 1932 screen adaptation from the team behind King Kong, Connell’s story has indirectly inspired a host of movies from around the world including John Woo’s Hard Target, the Roger Corman produced The Woman Hunt, the Ozploitation classic Turkey Shoot, the racially charged Surviving the Game, the trash masterpiece Deadly Prey, the recent Ready or Not, and to some extent The Hunger Games and its Japanese antecedent Battle Royale.
What unites all of these films is the central theme of wealthy elites hunting less well off prey (though for a time in the ‘70s, inspired by the success of Deliverance, we got a class reversal of this scenario, with poor rednecks hunting middle class city slickers). Blumhouse’s Purge franchise has taken this dynamic to a politicized extreme, making the wealthy hunters a group of WASPish elites whose goal is to erase the poor and minorities. In the Purge movies, the villains are very much of a conservative “Make America Great Again” bent, but the truth is that rich people are as likely to be liberals as conservatives, and in recent years much of the most fervent classist rhetoric has come from wealthy liberals who view the poor as an inconvenience. Some liberal commentators have touted the idea that those who don’t possess certain educational qualifications should be disqualified from voting, while at the same time denouncing anyone who proposes the idea of free education. On both sides of the Atlantic, progressive left wing candidates have found themselves demonized as much by the liberal media as its conservative opposition. What unites rich liberals and rich conservatives is a love of holding onto money, and it increasingly seems like a liberal is just a conservative who uses the correct pronouns.
How refreshing then to receive a movie like the latest product of the Blumhouse stable, Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, in which the villains are liberal elites, a secretive cabal of millionaires who drug and kidnap working class conservatives to serve as the prey in a deadly hunt held in an Eastern European country posing as Arkansas. And how ironic that Donald Trump launched a twitter tirade against this movie’s marketing, ignorantly assuming we were supposed to root for its liberal villains.
The selected would-be-victims all hold pretty extreme right wing views, which will make them difficult to sympathize with for most viewers, but among them is Crystal (Betty Gilpin), who seems confused by her placement in this band of conservative conspiracy nuts. She also stands out due to her curious ability to take care of herself, and while most of her fellow prey have been killed off within minutes of being released, Crystal is putting up a fight. Not content with simply fleeing, Crystal becomes determined to take the battle to the people responsible for her predicament.
As much as it owes to ‘The Most Dangerous Game’, Zobel’s film is heavily indebted to John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. Like Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, Gilpin’s Crystal is a politically ambiguous protagonist caught up in a heavily politicised game. This ambivalence allows the film to dish out the ribbing to both liberals and conservatives in equal doses. Both sides are subjected to scathing attacks courtesy of Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof’s script, which offers plenty to offend wokesters and right-wingers, two groups of people not known for their ability to laugh at themselves.
The rest of us will have a blast at their expense, as this is an entertaining piece of old school b-movie filmmaking. Gilpin has been a jobbing supporting player for a while now, and in her first major headlining role she proves herself a genuine movie star. Like the aforementioned Russell, she possesses that rare combination of crackerjack comic timing, star presence and the ability to convince us she’s really as tough as her character. Her Crystal is a delightfully entertaining protagonist, one who embodies the feelings of most of us towards the sort of conservatives and liberals who have hijacked the discourse in recent years. It’s refreshing for a movie to present us with a Southern working class character who isn’t either a racist or an imbecile, which also furthers the film’s scorn towards those liberals who write off entire swathes of the population as “deplorables.”
Gilpin is best known for her role in the Netflix women’s wrestling series GLOW, and she’s clearly learnt a few moves from her time on that project. Another actress with fighting skills in her locker is Hilary Swank, who sprung to fame as the high-kicking star of 1994’s martial arts sequel The Next Karate Kid. She’s cast here as the film’s equivalent of a video game’s final boss, the evil mastermind behind the hunt, and when herself and Gilpin go toe to toe it’s a catfight for the ages.
‘The Most Dangerous Game’ entered the public domain in 2020, so expect a lost of opportunist reworkings of its premise over the next few years. The Hunt is a worthy standout addition to its canon, a movie for our time for those of us who are sick to death of movies for our time.
The Hunt - 4 Stars out of 5
Directed by: Craig Zobel; Starring: Betty Gilpin, Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Hilary Swank, Justin Hartley, Amy Madigan, Macon Blair
Eric Hillis is a film critic living in Dublin who runs the website TheMovieWaffler.com