Killing The Hunt

The controversy that surrounded The Hunt may already seem like ancient history, but it’s worth noting Craig Zobel’s film was supposed to be released this weekend by Universal Studios. Of course, it won’t be. In fact, it may never be.

It’s not hard to understand why the film made so many squeamish. On its face, a new version of The Most Dangerous Game where rich elites bring twelve redneck types onto a remote facility to hunt them for sport would probably be squirm-inducing in any era. In the one we currently live in, it proved to be positively toxic.

Criticism of this movie sight-unseen (by all but the very few) rained in from all directions. Liberals were convinced the film set out to paint them as vicious elitists, who would rather the common man be dead than to have to have a conversation with one of them. Conservatives were certain the film was a liberal’s wet dream, allowing them to congregate at local movie houses and cheer on the violent deaths of “deplorables” (quite literally the word used in the movie for the conservative prey, which is a bit on the nose if you ask me).

Universal Studios took heat from both sides as the film’s first trailer was released at the end of July. Marketed as a horror-satire, the “satire” part seemed to be going over more than a few heads. But starring sizable names like Betty Gilpin (Emmy-nominated for Glow), two-time Oscar nominee Hilary Swank, and Emma Roberts, The Hunt looked to be aiming at the same audience The Purge movies do. The wild card here that suggests that The Hunt might be aiming for something higher is its director, Craig Zobel.

Zobel directed three films prior to The Hunt. His first film, Great World of Sound, is a tiny gem of a movie which tells the story of two record producers running scams on new artists. Not many saw it, but most who did thought fondly of it. His third film was Z for Zachariah, a post-apocalyptic love triangle with Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie that garnered decent reviews despite bombing at the box office. His second film, Compliance, is the best of the trio. Based on true events, Compliance is a deeply disturbing psychological drama about a fast food manager who is conned into performing a strip-search on a co-worker by a man posing as a police officer. It’s an impossibly uncomfortable film to watch. In the wrong hands, it would have easily crossed over the line into B-movie exploitation. It is to Zobel’s considerable credit (he wrote and directed the film) that it doesn’t. Compliance received nearly unanimous raves and Ann Dowd as the manager was nominated for several awards.

While I would guess by his previous work that Zobel leans to the left, his personal politics have not been made clear. What I can say from his previous films is that Zobel is an uncommonly thoughtful filmmaker, and one willing to challenge his audience. His films are patient, methodical, and don’t take the easy way out in dealing with moral dilemmas. They are deftly handled in a way that might make you think he’d be a good match for material like The Hunt.

Alas, we don’t get to know whether Zobel made a good film, a bad film, or something in-between. This is due in large part to the insertion of presidential politics into the mix. The current occupant of the White House bellowed (on Twitter, of course) his outrage at the concept of The Hunt. On August 9th he declared: “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true racists and are very bad for our country!”

It’s hard to unpack that mess, but let’s be clear: he has not seen the movie. Why he injected race into the conversation is anyone’s guess (I’m going with projection), since the film isn’t known to explicitly deal with that topic at all. As for the comments on chaos and violence, well, no comment.

Just four days after the president’s bellicose statement, The Hunt was cancelled. The fact that the president is blackballing movies in our supposedly free country is scary enough, but that so many liberals were compliant is the real shame. We effectively aided and abetted the censoring of an artist’s work by the last man on earth we should agree with on anything.

Because here’s the thing: whether The Hunt is a piece of garbage or the second coming of cinema as we know it, we should be allowed to decide for ourselves. Now, you might look at the preview and say “that’s not for me” and that’s fine too. We all make decisions on how to spend our time and money. What we should not do is decree that a work of art be shelved (effectively banned) just because the mere idea of it offends our sensibilities.

There is a long history of offensive cinema that I’m willing to bet is worse than anything in The Hunt. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a Klansman’s fairy tale. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is a Nazi propaganda film. Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” Obama’s America is practically celluloid slander. The difference is you can see all of these movies and form your own opinions. You know, like grownups. I think they are all great examples of putting talent and technical craft to alarmingly offensive use. But I also think that we actually need that. We need to to be able to make moral and artistic judgements for ourselves – not have them made for us. One might say that’s how we grow. 

In 1995 Columbia Pictures released a little black comedy called The Last Supper, starring Cameron Diaz and Courtney B. Vance, about a group of liberal grad students living together who lure hate-filled conservatives into their home, murder them, bury them in the backyard, and plant tomatoes over their remains. It was dark, disturbing, and often hilarious. In the end, they get a much-deserved comeuppance for the extreme lengths they go to in order to make the world a “better place.” I watched that film with two republican-voting roommates at the time. And you know what? Not only did all three of us survive the experience, we rather enjoyed it. Not because the film was pro-conservative or pro-liberal – because it was neither. It was showcasing the slippery slope that allows someone to become that which they, quite rightly, hate.

The Last Supper came and went without much notice (despite decent reviews). I strongly recommend you seek it out. It’s a very good film whose premise would seem to have much in common with The Hunt. Zobel himself said in a statement after The Hunt’s release was cancelled: “Our ambition was to poke at both sides of the aisle equally. We seek to entertain and unify, not enrage and divide. It is up to the viewers to decide what their takeaway will be.”

If only we could.

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