Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

“The Hunt” is another in a long line of loose adaptations of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” Aside from some clever work by Betty Gilpin (see Netflix’ “GLOW”), this nasty little film provides mild thrills and occasional chuckles.

Tell me you’ve heard (or seen) this one before: twelve strangers awaken in a clearing in a weird, unknown rural area having no idea how they got there or why. In minutes, it becomes evident that they’re being hunted. One-by-one, they fall victim to unseen attackers. But the killers weren’t counting on one of the prey turning the tables. The hunters are about to become the hunted.

“The Hunt” is directed by Craig Zobel, who gave us 2012’s “Compliance,” and the entertaining 2007 indie “Great World of Sound.” The problem isn’t with Zobel’s directing choices; instead, this is a picture that is almost too familiar ever to be anything more than weakly derivative. Because this adaptation is written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the duo behind HBO’s outstanding “Watchmen,” you’d think that something new would have been injected into the story to cause the viewer to sit up and take notice.

The overt political tomfoolery afoot in “The Hunt” almost does the trick. The hunters are one political persuasion, and the prey is another. This political polarization reminiscent of the current real-world climate had great potential, and it was in that material that producers eked out some free media exposure. Last year, “The Hunt” was pulled from release out of concern that its message would be insensitive, given the tragic shootings in Dayton and El Paso.

In keeping with the sardonic tone of this affair, laughs do come, exposing the hunters as tone-deaf. However, the shallowness of these broad jokes only serves to undermine the film’s central premise: the basis for the hunt is never credible.

Here’s where “The Hunt” wastes its potential. There’s a pig in this movie. Shortly after waking in the clearing, the twelve discover a large crate. Once opened, a pig wearing clothing trots out. It’s an interesting sequence meant to evoke George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” And that famous novel is referenced throughout the film.

Sadly, instead of attempting to explain the ridiculous events in allegorical terms in an attempt to sell the politically charged material, the Cuse/Lindelof script merely uses references to Orwell as window-dressing. If I were to give in to “The Hunt’s” forced mythology, I would borrow another Orwellian inspired term “groupthink.” This concept might cause me to endorse the idea that a kind of psychotic collective mania governs the ruthless hunters. But other than a passing reference, this concept is buried in favor of a series of violent kills.

And as an action film, “The Hunt” does have its moments. Part of the limited success is in Gilpin’s mysterious character named Crystal. A country girl, who knows her way around firearms, Crystal exhibits a keen situational awareness from the point go. Her eyes are always darting about as she takes the measure of everything around her. She’s an enigma that, naturally, the professionally trained hunters weren’t counting on. Or were they?

Connell’s 1924 source material featured a big game hunter named General Zaroff hunting another big game hunter named Rainsford. After successfully hunting other human beings, Zaroff is pleased to have found, by chance on his island, worthy prey. The hunter respects the hunted.

In “The Hunt,” there’s none of that respect. The prey was chosen for reasons apart from their abilities to fight back. And the power dynamic is so tilted that many fall in seconds like cordwood. I thought while watching: if the hunt is going to be this easy, why have a hunt at all? A firing squad is probably more efficient and would serve the same end.

But Crystal proves to be the poisoned pill. The question is whether she can survive, but without knowing anything about her, the problem is whether we should even care? At a brisk running time clocking in at less than an hour and a half, “The Hunt” doesn’t waste time trying to make any serious points.

A better film would have developed the parallel universe in which these events take place and cleverly built on Crystal’s backstory. The script here isn’t that ambitious. Despite the presence of multiple Oscar-winner Hilary Swank playing the hunt’s evil mastermind, it’s Crystal that proves to be the most interesting. And the film ends just as we’re getting to know her.

The naked intent of everyone involved with this production is to painlessly contribute to the Blumhouse machine that now routinely cranks out low-budget horror and thrillers for a quick profit. “The Hunt” isn’t a film interested in exploring the grisly consequences of deep-seated political polarization. And given the long history of the short story that inspired it and the talent on screen, such a lack of ambition is almost unforgivable.

****

A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com