Producers: Jason Blum and Damon Lindelof   Director: Craig Zobel   Screenplay: Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof   Cast: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Emma Roberts, Christopher Berry, Sturgill Simpson, Kate Nowlin, Amy Madigan, Reed Birney, Glenn Howerton, Steve Coulter, Dean J. West, Vince Pisani, Teri Wyble, Steve Mokate, Sylvia Grace Crim, Jason Kirkpatrick, Macon Blair, Justin Hartley and J.C. MacKenzie   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  B

Craig Zobel’s comic-horror political satire became a cause célèbre when Universal pulled it from release last fall, after its violent plot drew criticism from many sources for its violence after mass shootings occurred in Dayton and El Paso and from politicians like Donald Trump (who hadn’t seen it, of course) for its premise, which played on the extreme political divisions in the country.  Now the company is effectively using the controversy to promote “The Hunt,” which is finally reaching theatres.  One would expect no less in a profit-motivated society. 

Setting aside the questions of crass commercialism, political opportunism and societal dysfunction (hard to do, perhaps, but try), though the movie will hardly win awards as a subtle satire of today’s mores, in genre terms it’s cunningly crafted and pretty funny to boot.

A politically charged version of that old chestnut “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which a man was hunted for sport, the film begins with twelve people drugged and deposited in the wild, each of them with a buckle-gag.  They’re all placed in a field with a crate that, when opened, proves to contain a cache of weapons, along with a key to unlock their gags.  But as they arm themselves, they’re fired upon by rifles and arrows coming from a nearby bunker.  Some fall immediately to bullets or other devices—a spike trap, land mines—while others manage to flee into the surrounding woods, only to be pursued.  Three of them succeed in reaching a mom-and-pop gas station, though it offers no sanctuary. 

At length their numbers are reduced to just a few.  Two of them, Gary (Ethan Suplee) and Don (Wayne Duvall), are conversant with Internet postings about a conspiracy called Manorgate, in which ordinary folks like them are kidnapped to serve as quarry for “Deep State” elitists to kill in elaborate hunts.  Each of them teams up for a time with Crystal May (Betty Gilpin), an army veteran who turns out to be the proverbial last girl standing in face-offs against Athena (Hilary Swank), the liberal mastermind behind the gruesome game, a loony leftie who’d been fired from her government post when rumors circulated on the Web about her hobby—and she foolishly posted a message critical of our Commander in Chief.

“The Hunt” works simply as a horror romp because it’s chock full of death scenes, which are clever and surprising enough to keep fans on their toes, especially at the very beginning, when targets that you’ve been invited to invest in emotionally get suddenly picked off without a moment’s pause.  The level of violence is high, of course, but it’s pulled off in a cartoonish fashion that distinguishes it from that found in movies of a grislier sort.  That’s especially true of the final cat-fight between Athena and Crystal May, a prolonged, brutal bit of choreography that piles punch upon punch. 

As a satire of the current blue-red divide in America, on the other hand, it’s amusing enough, but aims at very low-lying fruit, painting both sides with the broadest, most obvious strokes.  The prey—or “the deplorable,” as the hunters call them, are all—at least those we get to know at all before they get blown away—a thoroughly stereotypical bunch, and the Manorites are all so effetely devoted to their politically-correct viewpoints that they’re caricatures too.  (Indeed, given their ultra-leftist views, it takes a leap of faith to accept that they’d be so devoted to using their Second Amendment rights as they do.)

There is an attempt at even-handedness in the end, though, as it’s suggested that both the reds and the blues bear a degree of responsibility for the creation of the entire Manor project in the first place.  Who’s to blame is the topic of the debate Crystal May and Athena indulge in before they finally come to blows. 

However you parse the narrative glitches, moreover, it’s undeniable that “The Hunt” works on its own crude terms, and is certainly no more offensive, either viscerally or politically, than “The Purge” series, which have gotten a pass from the bloviators who so insistently criticized it.  Zobel’s direction is assured, and together with cinematographer Darran Tiernan and editor Jane Rizzo he pulls off plenty of exciting moments and keeps the tension roiling.

He also has chosen his cast well and uses it wisely.  Gilpin, with her hangdog manner, and Swank, with her snooty smirk, fill the bill perfectly, offering the needed contrast, and the most notable among other participants—Suplee, Duvall, Ike Barinholtz, Amy Madigan and Reed Birney—also exult in the goofiness of the piece.  But then everyone involved appear to have tuned into Zobel’s wavelength.

That includes composer Nathan Barr, though one can criticize the choice of some classical bits occasionally employed.  It’s amusing to hear some Mahler—specifically his Sixth Symphony—at the start, especially because its subtitle is “Tragic,” perhaps a genuine allusion to the unfortunate political divide the script satirizes.  But when Crystal May gets to the Manor, was it really necessary for a Mozart piano concerto to be playing?  Why is it that every villain (or in this case villainess) in today’s movies must be characterized by a devotion to his music?  It’s unfair, even if in this case it elicits a mild chuckle when Crystal misidentifies it as Beethoven. 

In any event, while “The Hunt” never reaches the transcendent heights of a “Dr. Strangelove,” perhaps it represents the sort of grotesque, violent, low-class send-up our present screwy socio-political culture deserves.