Has there been a movie with worse luck than The Hunt? It was originally scheduled to be released in late August 2019 and was postponed after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Its studio, Blumhouse, pulled the movie out of sensitivity and rescheduled it for March, trying to draft off some of the latent controversy once President Trump caught wind of its liberals-versus-conservatives battle-to-the-death premise and tried to make political hay from it. The marketing highlighted quotes from political figures and writers and asked audiences to judge the controversy for themselves. Flash forward, and the new release date was pretty much the last weekend of theatrical action in 2020. Thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19, very few people ventured out from the safety of their socially distant homes to the movies, and it’s only become more dire since. Now just about every wide release has been scuttled from the release date from March into the middle of the summer, and who knows how long this may carry on for. The Hunt may be the last new theatrical movie for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, Universal made their theatrical releases available on demand (this may be an irreversible new reality of distribution) and I watched The Hunt at home. I home hunted, and I’m glad I did. If you’re a fan of Ready or Not and You’re Next, then The Hunt and its shocking violence, demented humor, and political satire might prove appealing.
A group of strangers wakes up gagged in a field. They’re given weapons and then the hunt is on from an unseen force. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) is trying to make sense of where she is, what is happening, and how she can escape into safety and who she may be able to trust.
I was consistently laughing throughout The Hunt and amused at its breakneck twists and turns. It’s a film that lets you know very early that it’s willing to go to some dark and twisted places. It throws a lot of characters immediately into the grinder, as you go from following one person who is ultimately slain to another person who eventually meets the same fate, and it creates a desperation of trying to find an anchor. It also makes it feel like anything can happen at any time, that whatever might seem normal could really be hiding a dangerous reality. It’s the kind of movie that isn’t below throwing a grenade down someone’s pants. It has definite satirical sights but that doesn’t stop it from being an enjoyable dark and thrilling little movie. Once we settle on our main heroine, the new joy becomes her ability to see through the facades of different scenarios and fight back, again and again. It’s a wonderfully executed setup of giving us a very capable fighter who is constantly underestimated and then watching her opponents toppled. Each new scenario gives us someone to root for and a new mini-boss to foil. The film becomes a series of escalating payoffs tied to the smartest person making others pay for their mistakes.
I always thought the anger that conservative pundits, and Trump, assailed The Hunt with was misplaced considering that, given the premise, it seemed very much like the liberal elites were the villains. For most of the first act, this is the case, as we’re dropped right into the mix and left to learn on our own much like the hunted conservative characters. We are put in their shoes and don’t even see who may be hunting them until 15 minutes in. For the opening of the movie, it’s like the beginning of the Hunger Games. What is this crate? Why is it filled with weapons? What’s the deal with the pig? It’s a game that you’re trying to learn the rules of while bullets are whizzing by heads, and sometimes splattering into them too. Unquestionably, our allegiance is with these vulnerable people trying to make sense of this madness and survive. We see their humanity. When they do finally encounter their predators in disguise, the liberals can barely conceal their contempt and prejudices. If anyone is actively rooting for the predators after the first act, then they haven’t been paying attention or were too far gone with empathy.
However, the movie does start to take a turn the longer we spend with the hunted conservative characters, all but one not given official names (the list on IMDB cites names like Staten Island, Yoga Pants, and the parenthetically-enabled, (Shut the F*** Up) Gary). They begin to play into the same overblown prejudices and negative stereotypes of their across-the-ideological-aisle peers. As The Hunt continues, it becomes more and more apparent that screenwriters Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (HBO’s The Leftovers) have crafted a political satire that takes aim at both sides (more on this specific aspect later). Eventually the real target reveals itself to be extremism and how it can cloud one’s judgement and ability to see other people on human levels. There’s a late scene where a conservative figure confronts the liberal designer of the Hunt, and they get into a circular argument over which side is responsible for the creation of this death game. It’s a hilarious blame game but also emblematic of what happens when people try to play on the same level as conspiracy theorists who distort reality to their pre-selected biases. Sometimes in politics you need to fight fire with fire and sometimes that extra oxygen only makes things worse.
Now The Hunt does have an issue with its “both sides are to blame” approach and that’s the false equivalency of the danger of right-wing and left-wing conspiracy clans. Right-wing militants are the ones saying Sandy Hook was a hoax with crisis actors, that Jade Helm was a military plot to take over the states, that scientists are in a cabal to bring down the petroleum industry, and cooping Americans up from COVID-19 to damage Trump, that immigrants are bringing crime and disease into the United States, and other such nutjob ideas. While left-wing extremists can be callous and have their own science denial problems (GMOs, vaccines), they aren’t the ones taking arms, storming federal buildings, sending pipe bombs in the mail, killing anti-Nazi protestors with cars, and shooting brown-skinned strangers in a Wal-Mart parking lot. One of these two ideological sides seem far more likely to support dangerous extremism than the other, especially with a man in the Oval Office who seems to wink and nod at these reactionary elements in approval. While the “both sides are bad” approach to satire allows The Hunt and its filmmakers more ground to market their movie to a wider audience sick of extremism, it’s also a dubious false equivalency that deserves to be called out.
Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s GLOW, Stuber) is the star of the movie and a force of nature. She’s capable, cunning, disarmingly physical and perceptive, and she creates wonderfully bloody havoc. She is a delight and her one-upping her opponents never gets old. She is no-nonsense and blunt, and her efficiency is admirable and highly entertaining. Gilpin is a surprise in badass mode, but she makes it her own with style. A late Act Three fight is brutal as it goes from room to room, smashing everything in sight. It goes on for so long that the fighters start to get fatigued, pleasantly reminding me of the excellent fight choreography of 2017’s Atomic Blonde. It’s a satisfying final confrontation and doesn’t find a contrived way to hold back her formidable ability.
The Hunt might have been cursed with bad luck but it also might have the distinction of being the last new movie in theaters in what is proving to be an increasingly challenged year of content delivery. It’s certainly not going to be a film for everyone despite its aim at centrism. I was entertaining by the script’s constant knack for surprises and upending my expectations, of laying out dominoes and then laying waste to said dominoes. Gilpin is a star in the making and a terrific lead. It’s a movie that can get people talking by the end, debating its satirical messages, but it can also just be a fun, nasty little movie that will make you hoot in delight with each violent twist. I’m glad The Hunt could finally be judged on its own merits rather than the presuppositions of others. There might be a lesson in there somewhere.
Nate’s Grade: B
The day at a fast food eatery began like any other. Sandra (Ann Dowd), the manager of the branch, has to shepherd her small group of employees through a hectic Friday evening. Then she gets a phone call from an “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy). He tells her one of her workers, Becky (Dreama Walker), has stolen money from a customer. Sandra takes Becky into a storeroom and confronts her. Becky is aghast and professes her innocence. This is where things start to get out of control in writer/director Craig Zobel’s potent indie pressure-cooker. “Officer Daniels” insists that Becky be searched, then strip searched, and then worse, and Sandra and the employees begrudgingly go along. After all, it’s an officer of the law telling them what to do. Except that “Officer Daniels” is no police officer. This whole incident is an awful prank, and the people involved will never be the same.
This really is an indie horror movie, flipping the oft-repeated cry, “Don’t go in there,” with, “Why are you still doing this?” You may have to watch portions of this movie between your fingers. I was squirming and crying out at numerous points. The tension and dread just continue to mount, and you watch the characters slowly degrade, as they’re asked to do more insidious acts of humiliation in the name of compliance, and to watch them carry on the path of shame. It’s a step-by-step process of human degradation, so that the more disturbing moments of sexual obedience don’t feel entirely implausible given the journey through hell the characters have endured. It is impossible to watch this movie silent and detached. This is a provocative film that will garner many reactions but it’s also something of an endurance test. How long can you watch? How far can you watch these characters descend? The movie hooks you early and then you almost feel complicit, but you’re completely taken over by morbid curiosity.
The movie is a powerful modern-day example of the Milgram experiment, the famous psychological exercise where a figure in authority, who assumes all responsibility, gradually gets average people to commit increasingly harmful acts to others. As long as people believe they are following orders, they can be convinced to do almost anything by someone in control. It’s easy to sit back and judge these characters, scoffing at how naïve they seem to be. It’s always easy for us to say what we would do in hypothetical situations, that is, until they happen. Compliance is an intriguing analysis of the shifting facets of power, authority, and manipulation. “Officer Daniels” enlists a host of tricks and verbal intimidation to persuade his victims to do things outside their better judgment (the caller’s true profession is a brilliant backstory). After a while, Sandra looks to be developing some slight Stockholm syndrome as she empathizes more with the plight of the phony officer on the phone than her employee. He provides just enough sympathy and validation she’s looking for to win her over. He also plays people against one another; he implores Becky to spare Sandra any extended grief, which often cows her into consenting. “Officer Daniels” isn’t the only one manipulating others; Sandra pressures employees to become involved in the situation, using her position of power to squeeze others into getting what she wants. There are numerous victims and culprits here.
Zobel could have easily given over to the exploitation elements of his story and made a very tawdry, voyeuristic exercise in sexual dominance. We watch as Becky bares all of herself and then goes even further, as “Officer Daniels” instructs male attendants to physically inspect her body cavities. It is a credit to Zobel’s sensitive direction that Compliance does not come across like a glorified S&M masturbation fantasy. He treats the incident very seriously, providing clear distaste without going overboard into preachy condemnation or superiority. It’s amazing that Zobel’s script finds so much empathy for his participants. You may be surprised at how relatable and “normal” these people seem. You may even recognize some of them. They’re all trying to do the right thing at heart, but that distinction gets extremely blurry as the night carries on. The point of Zobel’s script is that these people could be us. The added empathy makes the downward spiral all the more stomach-churning, as we want these characters to take a stand, to wise up and question the voice of authority.
Dowd (Marley & Me) is downright heartbreaking and deeply frustrating in the movie. We get a clear sense of the pressure she’s under in her position, but she’s really the focal point of the movie. Walker (TV’s Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23) is the martyr of the piece, and her slow resignation to the humiliation is deeply affecting, but this is Dowd’s movie. The longtime character actress takes the character of the dowdy Sandra, striving for respect, and transforms her into a figure worthy of Greek tragedy. She can be vindictive and, well, bossy, but she’s also a figure struggling for respect and validation and what she feels is morally just. We watch as her confidence starts getting chipped away, the flickers of doubt that she must tamp down because now she’s gone too far to reverse course. I don’t imagine that a movie as small as Compliance will be remembered around Oscar time, but I’ll certainly recall Dowd’s sad and transfixing performance.
I’d like to share a spooky bit of personal connection to the film. No I’ve never experienced anything this heinous before, but there was an offhand music cue that caught my interest. When we cut to the dining area early on, there’s an Admiral Twin song playing. Who is Admiral Twin? Why they’re a brilliant pop-rock band from Tulsa, Oklahoma that I’ve been singing the praises of since 2000. I’ve won over friends with my discipleship, but the band is still relatively unknown, playing few performances outside of their native Tulsa. Given the phonetic approximations of my name with the film’s writer/director, and the inclusion of an obscure indie band that few know (but should), it seems likely that Zobel may indeed be some far off relative of mine or, more likely, myself. I must have crafted an entire film without ever knowing about it. This seems like the most probable scenario.
I don’t want it sound like Compliance is some grueling exercise in group sadism. In lesser hands, it might have devolved to that. It’s a fascinating and provocative game that challenges and incenses an audience. The movie is a sickening but compulsively watchable dramatic experiment that will leave you talking for hours once it concludes. It’s an uncomfortable sit, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. The events in the film seem unbelievable and yet it’s based on a true story. This stuff happened, people. Not only that, it happened multiple occasions in multiple vicinities. What does that say about human nature? Will we only be as good as society lets us be? If we are absolved of responsibility, how far removed from our own sense of ethics will we go? Are we all susceptible to this moral failing under the right circumstances? I think that’s the truly terrifying and lasting lesson of Compliance. These people could be us, both victim and unwitting antagonist. Destined to stir debate and become a college ethics course favorite, Compliance is a gripping movie that will make you cringe but also give way to some scary introspection. How far would you go?
Nate’s Grade: A-