Betty Gilpin wrote a terrific essay for Vanity Fair last week about her new movie, The Hunt. She addresses the controversy of last fall, when Universal postponed the release from its planned September 27th opening after complaints flooded in from Donald Trump, Fox News, and other conservatives following back-to-back mass shootings that resulted in 31 deaths in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in early August.
Of course, conservatives have proven they have little to no interest in legislative progress towards gun reform, so for them, this wasn’t actually about sensitivity toward mass shootings, as it probably was for the studio. Having not seen the film, conservatives were outraged because of the premise: a group of liberal elites kidnaps a group of “deplorables” and hunts them for sport.
On the surface, it’s a fair thing to be upset about. But, as is often the case these days, the media outcry was premature and immature. As it turns out, the movie has no political leaning at all. If anything, it leans a teeny smidge to the right. The Big Bad Boss character is an enraged liberal CEO after all.
Take it from Gilpin: “It’s a satire about a group of out-of-touch, oat-milk-latte-sipping, kid-glove-wearing elites whose careers are ruined by a baseless internet conspiracy perpetuated by a rage-fueled comment section. […] They become the monsters they begged the world to believe they weren’t. They are the bad guys in this movie.”
But, as Gilpin later notes, it’s not about villainizing liberals or conservatives. It becomes clear early on that The Hunt is invested in satirizing both parties. As if all it wants is for everyone to step back and take a good look at themselves. Self-awareness is a bottom-dwelling concern in political climates that are more like social hell storms. Gilpin’s phrasing offers chills: “It’s not meant to stoke conflict; it’s meant to cross the battlefield the morning after, Starbucks in hand, both sides hungover and exhausted, and say, with tears in our eyes…I miss you, poopface.” Peace, it’s a profoundly beautiful image.
Unfortunately, the emphasis should be on the word “meant.” Gilpin is the film’s lead. Her job is to promote this movie. And it seems like she genuinely believes in it. I can imagine believing similarly if I’d put that much time and effort into it — memorizing lines while internalizing the undercurrent of commentary that drew her to the screenplay, discussing themes with writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse and director Craig Zobel for hours on end, working to nail down the tone of the only politically neutral character in the movie, etc. But, at such close distance, Gilpin doesn’t see that the film she’s describing isn’t the film they ended up making.
It’s a classic case of Cocktail. Tom Cruise read and signed onto a version of that movie that he and everyone involved thought would be great — unforgettable in its complexity and commentary on the nature of power and money in the 1980s. Then Disney swooped in for rewrites and reshoots. It’s a common occurrence in Hollywood, especially for a movie as middling as The Hunt. However, the “Disney” in this parallel is none other than reality itself. Maybe a better comparison is the (500) Days of Summer expectations vs. reality split-screen sequence. Because, unless The Hunt existed in a much more thought-provoking iteration pre-postponement, it never stood a chance at crossing the battlefield the morning after.
It wasn’t even on the battlefield in the first place. The Hunt isn’t a commanding general on the sidelines hounding soldiers to keep fighting either. It’s a neutral drone that hovers observantly, too small to shoot, occasionally buzzing like a bee past someone’s ear and irritating them. In no way does it offend or stoke the fire of political division. It’s empty, pandering, and thoughtless.
The movie is annoying regardless of your political leaning because it’s comprised solely of pigeonholes (conservatives are farmers, politicians’ daughters, and people who live in Staten Island, while liberals are techies, faux-refugees, and Ava DuVernay-loving Twitter obsessives). Buzz words and phrases (snowflake, blame the victim, trigger warning, appropriation, problematic, etc.) abound — a glossary of glib political terminology in disaster-struck 2020.
Where good socio-political commentary and satire challenges viewers to consider the perspectives of those they disagree with (and in turn, reflect on their own perspective), The Hunt oversimplifies perspectives through one-liners, racing to squeeze in every zeitgeisty, low-hanging bit before the finish line. Where good satire provides critical insight on mindsets and platforms, The Hunt only perpetuates stereotypes, all complexity and nuance stripped from issues we call “divisive” for a reason.
The movie is not annoying because it pushes buttons (it doesn’t). It’s annoying because it doesn’t make you think about the topic the film is so concerned with satirizing. And in that case, it doesn’t do the job satire is tasked with, which is “to use humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immortality or foolishness, especially as a form of social or political commentary,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
To a certain extent, the team behind the film knew this. “I think the movie is, ironically, quite harmless,” Lindelof said last week in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. But at the same time, he believes the movie prompts serious warning and sincere thought about the current social atmosphere. “It was a cautionary tale, and the cautionary tale is exactly as you put it, which is, the more extreme you get, the more dangerous things become,” Lindelof admits.
He also makes it clear that he knows what a good version of a movie like The Hunt should do, saying, “I think that we use horror and scary stories as a way to speak to whatever the interior anxiety we’re feeling, both personally and societally. […] ‘What does this idea of divisiveness really mean in its most horrific kind of extreme version?’ […] horror allows us to ask those questions, and to show people the manifestation of their nightmares.”
But the version of The Hunt we got doesn’t utilize this. Team America: World Police, The Great Dictator, Election, Dr. Strangelove, Thank You for Smoking — these are movies that take a socio-political issue’s temperature and fashion characters and stories that make us laugh, gasp, and think. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of Team America and the TV series South Park, have cemented their names as modern masters of the art of satire in its most extreme form, as Lindelof would want it.
Team America leaves no party untouched, no perspective un-mocked. It follows a hyper-American anti-terrorist unit that opens the film by “saving” Paris from terrorists but destroying the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower in the process while singing, “America, fuck yeah!” in a state of blissful naiveté. In other words, it makes a complete ass out of the US military and its staunch supporters. But only before it sets liberal Hollywood in its sights, sarcastically praising lead puppet Gary (voiced by Parker) for his life choices (“You’re an actor with a double major in theater and world languages! Hell, you’re the perfect weapon!”) and the supposedly contrived activism of stars like Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn, the latter of whom wrote an angry letter to the filmmakers defending his right not to vote in the aftermath of the film’s controversy.
Whether you hate Team America or love it, agree with it or disagree with it (maybe both), it started a conversation. It made us think about the issues at hand: how the American military-industrial complex obliterates the globe in its pursuit of peace; how liberal causes can morph into actionless platforms that serve as mere publicity campaigns; and how we, the average viewers, might or might not be complicit in any of it. Yes, it pushes some buttons. Or, maybe it just walked up to the control board and started slamming all of them at once. But it got us thinking, and it’s entertaining as hell.
The Great Dictator is a fascinating case of brilliant satire. Charlie Chaplin took an ill-advised political risk in satirizing Nazi Germany in the middle of World War II in 1940, and the film became one of the most historically significant satires of all time. As expected, Hitler (called Adenoid Hynkel in the film) and his officers are the primary targets with Chaplin raising fundamental questions about politics of the time, the intrinsic value of every human being, and diversity in communities that Hitler’s regime had successfully thwarted on a continental scale. But the film also caused controversy among pro-Allies when it came out, garnering criticism for insensitively approaching such a devastating issue with witty screwball comedy.
It was also criticized for its finale, in which a man mistaken for Hynkel (a slight variation of Chaplin’s famous Tramp character) gives a lengthy anti-Nazi speech that culminates in, “Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate, and intolerance!” It was obvious that Chaplin’s message was good, but for many, there was something deeply offensive about Chaplin putting those words in the mouth of a man that is virtually Hitler. Although, it was primarily seen as powerful and uplifting. And regardless, it made people think. Chaplin called out the idle behavior of the masses, the toxicity of politicking, and the hatred of Hitler alike, and it reeled audiences around the globe (even those who were banned from seeing it) into a space where they could both fall out of their chair laughing and interrogate their own inner unease.
Lindelof is right. The Hunt is harmless. It won’t chronically desensitize the masses toward gun violence or inculcate clichés deeper in the cultural conscience or dumb down the socio-political conversation. Why? Because it’s not funny or entertaining or smart enough to hold the mass’s attention. Its emptiness will only suck the fun (outside of a few good kills) out of the room for those who watch it. And as far as political comedy is concerned, we get enough low-hanging fruit on social media, and at least some of it makes us laugh.