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Image Credit: 

[Ike Barinholtz in The Hunt/ Universal Pictures]

In the Dark

Aiming Aimlessly

The Hunt (2020)

Directed by Craig Zobel ◆ Screenplay by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof ◆ Produced by Blumhouse Productions ◆ Distributed by Universal Pictures

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Shoedsack ◆ Screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman ◆ Produced and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

The Candidate (1972)

Directed by Michael Ritchie ◆ Screenplay by Jeremy Larner ◆ Produced by Redford-Ritchie Productions ◆ Distributed by Warner Brothers

 

The Hunt is a recklessly scabrous satire that concerns itself—or pretends to concern itself—with the battle lines between well-heeled millennials and that portion of our population Hillary Clinton, straying from her script, dubbed “deplorables.”

The film’s allegorical premise echoes the one that informs Richard Connell’s famous 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” adapted to the screen in 1932 by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, the fellows who gave us King Kong a year later. 

Leslie Banks in The Most Dangerous Game (1932)Like King Kong, “The Most Dangerous Game” is about people being chased by a monster. Only this monster is considerably shorter than a 50-foot gorilla. He’s General Zaroff, a formidable Cossack who owns an Amazonian island on which he hunts those unlucky enough to wash up on his shores from time to time. Interestingly, Zaroff is not wholly deficient in the warmth of human kindness. He serves his visitors with wine of an excellent vintage and a gourmet dinner before sending them into the jungle with a three-day head start. Furthermore, he provides them each an eight-inch hunting knife with which to defend themselves from his high-powered, scoped rifle. Just to keep things civilized, Zaroff promises his prey he’ll call off the hunt if they can elude his pursuit for three days. Could anyone reasonably ask for more?

When directors Schoedsack and Cooper adapted the story to the screen in 1932, with Leslie Banks as Zaroff, and Fay Wray and Joel McCrea as his prey, things tightened up, as they tend to do on screen. Instead of three days, Zaroff grants his guests merely three hours lead time. 

While The Hunt purloins Connell’s premise, it adds considerably more blood and gore to its proceedings. By comparison, The Most Dangerous Game seems absolutely civilized. The Hunt spins an allegory of murderous all-out class warfare in which millennial predators display no mercy. The narrative imagines a fabulously wealthy institute comprised of smug youths who kidnap middle-class folk of modest means—deplorables, if you will—drug them and fly them to Croatia in order to hunt them for sport. Well, what else can one expect in Croatia? 

Despite The Hunt’s politically tinged premise, I’m not sure its writers, Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, and director, Craig Zobel, are interested in anything more substantive than hurling blood, gore, and shock onto the screen. The film’s tone is that ghoulishly gleeful. I’m sure they would deny this, pointing to the class warfare angle, but this seems to me little more than a face-saving ruse.

The kidnapped victims, once awakened from their drugged sleep, find a wooden box in a verdant field containing an assortment of high-tech firearms, hunting knives, and a single little pig. The pig’s purpose can hardly be anything else but mockery, in that the kidnapped all display symptoms of piggish redneckery. In their normal lives, some own guns and hunt innocent animals, none seem to believe in climate change, and others refuse to acknowledge the plight of minorities. They’re shamefully insensitive to the ethos of political correctness that their betters have so thoughtfully laid out for the past 20 or 30 years. What could be more fitting than to take aim at such ill-informed dolts?

While amusing at moments, The Hunt is also numbingly crude. Instead of discussing the issues it raises, its characters prefer to blow off the heads of those who disagree with them in tight, splattering close-ups. 

Hilary Swank in The Hunt (2020)Embracing the havoc, the characters all seem delighted with the wanton carnage they inflict. This comes to its climax in a showdown between the millennial mastermind, Athena (Hilary Swank), and her deplorable opposite, Crystal (Betty Gilpin), an Afghan veteran who manages a Mississippi 7-Eleven. Both actresses give convincingly nutty performances that culminate in a bloody, sensationalistic battle, during which they shoot, stab, and pummel each other with kitchen utensils, including pots, pans, cleavers, steak knives, and a handy crème brûlée torch. Beyond its value as a weapon, the torch also serves to cauterize their slash wounds, preventing at least one of them from bleeding out entirely. Clearly these women went to school with Rambo. 

Whether the film is worth seeing depends upon your tolerance for viewing exploded heads and carved torsos. Let me not forget the fellow whose head cracks open when someone drives over it. Generally, I’m satisfied with the tiniest bit of such bloodletting. I have to concede, however, the violence here is so over-the-top that it’s more risible than grisly. It’s at one with the film’s determination to mock our pretense of being a democratic society in which everyone is accorded equal respect.

For another instance of the lack of respect bred of class warfare, let’s consider Michael Ritchie’s acerbic film The Candidate (1972). To do so, I need to step back to 1969, the year journalist Joseph McGinniss wrote The Selling of the President 1968, his account of what he had witnessed when he was allowed to follow Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign the year before. The book deservedly became a best seller. While largely fair-minded, it revealed in no uncertain terms how Nixon was packaged and sold to the electorate. Although anything but a Nixon fan, McGinniss admired the skill with which his handlers, the aptly named Frank Shakespeare and the saturnine John Mitchell prominent among them, managed to convince doubtful voters of Nixon’s suitability for office. Tactics Shakespeare employed included arranging for Nixon to appear on television playing the piano and walking on the beach in San Clemente, albeit wearing polished black wingtips.

Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972)I mention this as a preface to commenting on The Candidate. Robert Redford had asked Ritchie to direct the film, which he hoped would reveal the sleazy strategies that lie at the heart of modern political campaigns. Its premise is this: young California lawyer Bill McKay, an ardent civil rights advocate played by Redford, is targeted by cynical political operative Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle). Lucas plans to use his professional skills to put McKay in the Senate. 

Lucas at first fails to convince McKay to run. But then he makes McKay a deal he can’t refuse. On a matchbook cover, he writes a two-word contract: “You lose.” The deal will be that McKay will have the opportunity to speak his mind on the issues that beset California without being held hostage to the usual moneyed interests that routinely attach themselves to promising political campaigns. Given Redford’s youth and looks, we know from the outset where things are heading. Without even trying very hard, McKay charms the younger portion of the electorate and, of course, women in general. As his poll numbers rise against his opponent, McKay’s guaranteed loss fades before the forces of swelling public acclaim. 

With a glistening, carefully trimmed beard, Boyle makes a compelling Mephistopheles to Redford’s naive Faust. Once Lucas realizes his horse has a chance to win the race, he turns up the heat by demonstrating to McKay that although his polling looks positive, he may nevertheless lose in the end if he doesn’t make his message more palatable for the general public. Indeed, he’ll not only lose but be humiliated. To save McKay from such devastation, Lucas begins tailoring his message step by step, until it’s little different from his opponent’s vacuous promises. In the film’s last scene following McKay’s election, amidst a flurry of staff jubilation, McKay sits down with Lucas in a campaign hotel room and asks, “What do we do now?” Before Lucas can answer, McKay’s jubilant followers break into the room and sweep both men into the hall outside. The camera, however, doesn’t follow the crowd. Rather it lingers, looking on the empty, standard-issue, characterless room, as the celebratory cheering of McKay’s followers fades away. The vacated room provides the perfect visual analog to the now empty soul of Bill McKay. 

Watching The Candidate once more, I was reminded of the fatuous Gary Hart who was running for president in 1984. His handlers had evidently tried to transform him into a Kennedy, so much so that he was nailed by CBS news correspondent Roger Mudd, who in an interview asked him point-blank why he was imitating the late John Kennedy. Visibly startled by so rude a question, Hart had no adequate answer. Imitation so servile had left little room for the kind of spontaneity for which the Kennedys were known. Jack and Bobby may have been intellectual lightweights, but they both had reserves of wit that often covered their deficiencies. On this score, Hart was clearly out of their league.

As played by Redford, McKay does not lack intelligence, but he’s nevertheless taken in by the flattering hoopla that invariably accompanies politics in America where popularity trumps reason.        

George McCartney

George McCartney

George McCartney, a professor of English at St. John's College, is film editor for Chronicles.  He is the author of Evelyn Waugh and the Modernist Tradition (Transaction).

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