‘The Hunt’ might tick you off; here’s why that’s a good thing

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The controversial film “The Hunt” picks its political side clearly and quickly, with enough middle fingers for every ideological extreme.

The satirical horror thriller (★★★ out of four; rated R; available on digital platforms) has taken a long, winding and tumultuous road to release and kicked up some dust along the way. Almost from the start, “The Hunt” has been contentious because of its subject matter: A group of conservative-leaning “deplorables” (including Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley and Ethan Suplee) are captured and hunted for sport by a cabal of liberal Americans fronted by a mysterious leader (Hilary Swank).

The film was shelved last August following mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, as well as criticism from President Donald Trump, and now is back with a snazzy new marketing slogan: “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.”

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Justin Hartley (left) and Emma Roberts star as members of the hunted who weapon up in a clearing in "The Hunt."

A little over the top? For sure, though subtlety doesn’t exist at all with “The Hunt.” With several months since the initial fracas, hardliners of every political stripe have moved on to many other situations that have arisen to drive the country further apart (for example, a presidential impeachment), though feathers shall be ruffled again by the politically charged narrative and cartoonish ultra-violence.

Here’s the thing: “The Hunt” is definitely controversial, but it’s an equal-opportunity offender that forgoes partisanship to poke bloody, gory fun at everybody. A 90-minute ride that zooms as right-wingers are hunted down, the movie – like “You’re Next” and “Ready or Not” – tweaks the “final girl” trope with Crystal (Betty Gilpin of “GLOW” fame), a seemingly ordinary Mississippi woman who battles back with heroic mettle. At the same time, the movie takes no prisoners, eviscerating both sides of the political aisle and gleefully showcasing how ridiculous this divide truly is.

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Athena (Hilary Swank, left) tussles with Crystal (Betty Gilpin) in "The Hunt."

Director Craig Zobel’s film utilizes the real-world language – “inbred rednecks,” “snowflakes,” “crisis actors” – that these sides volley at each other, usually online, and unleashes a flurry of stereotypes, such as big-game hunters, white supremacists, Kid Rock wannabes and common trolls. Enraged keyboard junkies are one thing, but “The Hunt” leans into how dumb “godless elites” really does sound out loud. “Woke” PC culture is also targeted with the precision of an X-Acto knife: After a couple of the hunters murder a few victims, one says to the other, “White people. We’re the worst.”

The saying goes that the pen is mightier than the sword, but “The Hunt” posits that ideas and guns are equally deadly. A wacky conspiracy theory becomes a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy and opposing forces rush to judgment about the other without any real thought on the matter. That’s the ultimate irony of the initial kerfuffle: Trump was outraged about a movie synopsis and a trailer before actually seeing the thing, pretty much making the film’s point way before it even came out.

While “The Hunt” is at its core politically neutral, the real highlight is Crystal. It’s a star turn for Gilpin, who makes a case for her own action-movie franchise (or at least a Marvel movie role), but also she’s the mostly sane (albeit slightly crazy pants) voice of reason, hard to peg as clearly left or right. She’s the third party, if you will, the center of a storm just trying to stay alive yet also a strong-willed woman who’s underestimated at one’s own peril.

Timely although not as timeless as, say, “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Hunt” will make you laugh – perhaps nervously, with the occasional half-a-body laying around after a landmine goes off. It will also tick off those with a thin skin and without an open mind. But if rooting for an awesome female butt-kicker with a Southern accent can unite us for the better part of an hour and a half, then we might not be a lost cause after all.


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