If you were paying attention last summer, you probably think you know what “The Hunt” is all about. Donald Trump does: Without naming the film, the president tweeted in August that this latest iteration of “The Most Dangerous Game” — in which upper-class elitists hunt down and kill working-class Americans — was “racist at the highest level” and “made in order to inflame and cause chaos.” An outcry ensued, with the conservative media labeling the movie an attack by liberal Hollywood on Main Street America, while those on the left retorted that, based on the trailer, the latte-sipping hunters were obviously the bad guys and the hunted “deplorables” were clearly the heroes. The mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso added to the bad-news vibes; Universal pulled “The Hunt” from its late-September release.
Now it’s here and — surprise — both sides turn out to have been wrong. Which is actually kind of the point. “The Hunt” is a clever, gory, often very funny piece of genre junk — a B+ movie — that carries a hidden warning: When we turn other people into cartoons of our worst fears, the only thing left to do is kill each other.
Directed by Craig Zobel, who made the disturbing workplace nightmare “Compliance” (2012), and written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (both of “Watchmen” and “The Leftovers”), “The Hunt” starts with red meat for the Fox News crowd: a group of sneering urban professionals texting each other about meeting at “the Manor” to “slaughter some deplorables.” Start foaming if you want, but in the words of the “Mad Max” social media meme, “that’s bait.”
The movie proper gets started with the awakening of 12 regular Joes and Janes in a field in the middle of nowhere — shades of Lindelof‘s “Lost.” When the bullets start flying, it becomes clear they’re sport, and a viewer attaches his or her loyalty to any particular character at their peril. All I will say is that being a name performer in this movie does not guarantee you’ll make it to the end credits.
That “The Hunt” comes from Blumhouse Productions, home of smartly disreputable horror fare, is a further tipoff that there’s more here than meets the social media hot take — as is the over-the-top comic gruesomeness of the early deaths. When the movie finally settles in on one particularly tough mama played by Betty Gilpin (of the Netflix lady-wrestling series “GLOW”), the tables are turned and the hunters become the hunted — and still the script’s politics are more complicated than they seem.
For one thing, a lot of the hunted actually are Fox-addled bozos, wide-eyed with QAnon conspiracy theories and hopes that they’ll get on “Hannity” if they ever make it out alive. And the hunters are a deliciously parodic group of effete NPR-donating progressives who only stop shooting to chide each other on their political correctness. “I’m sorry, I gendered you,” is one fly-by comment, as is my favorite: “Hey, Ava DuVernay just liked my post!”
So what’s really going on here? Is “the Hunt” a shameless provocation for our politically fraught times? Well, yeah, especially if you don’t look too closely. Is it pure vigilante and-then-there-were-none drive-in mayhem? That, too. Does it carry a moral about relying on partisan stereotypes gleaned from TV and social media — a bloody reminder that if we turn people we disagree with into murderous stereotypes, we’ll become murderous stereotypes ourselves?
Now we’re getting somewhere.
“The Hunt” doesn’t lay this out in sober, responsible fashion. Like any good piece of exploitation trash, it splatters it across the screen, building to a grueling (but witty!) showdown between Gilpin’s character and a mysterious Ms. Big, played by an Oscar-winning actress whose appearance here is itself a marvelous inside joke. By then, the heroine has become the only complex, three-dimensional human in the movie, neither left or right but just tired as hell and hoping to get home. Which, again, is pretty much the point.
I don’t want to praise this movie too highly, in part because you can parse its politics only so far before they take a back seat to the flying Cuisinart blades and wielded culinary torches (really). When Gilpin’s character says of her as-yet-unseen enemies, “it depends on whether they’re smart pretending to be idiots or idiots who think they’re smart,” the uncertainty could apply to the filmmakers as well. “Get Out” this is not. (The issue of race largely goes unaddressed, which is simultaneously smart, cowardly, and convenient.) But “The Hunt” has been cast as The Enemy by both sides in our cultural trench warfare, and that’s not only wrong but proof of the problem. The movie sees the enemy, and the enemy is us.
Directed by Craig Zobel. Written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof. Starring Ike Barinholtz, Emma Roberts, Betty Gilpin, Amy Madigan. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 90 minutes. R (strong bloody violence and language throughout)