Betty Gilpin in The Hunt (Photo: Universal)

THE HUNT
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Craig Zobel
STARS Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank

In this era of alternative facts and fake news, it’s hardly surprising that the early word on The Hunt couldn’t have been more incorrect.

Originally set for a September 2019 opening, the film got pulled from that date following a rash of mass shootings. But the rumor had already gotten out about the basic premise — rich liberals hunt working-class conservatives for sport — and the right went absolutely bonkers, with FOX “News” devoting a couple dozen segments on attacking the movie. The film was even called “racist”(?) by the White-Supremacist-in-Chief, who also added (oh, the irony!) that “it’s actually very dangerous for our country.”

Now that it’s finally opened, those who bother to step out of the echo chambers can clearly see that The Hunt, the latest variation on Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” is not a bloody call-to-arms against the right. Instead, it’s meant as a satire skewering folks on both sides of the political divide. If anything, the characters who call Trump “the ratfucker-in-chief” and his followers “deplorables” are actually blasted more harshly than their opponents.

With only one exception (an anti-immigrant hate-radio host), the conservatives are never defined by their politics and seem like decent people. The liberals, on the other hand, are all painted as extremist nitwits, grotesque caricatures that largely only exist in the monologues of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. (When one of their number is seen wearing a kimono, another shrieks, “Cultural appropriation!”) Perhaps scripters Damon Lindelof (an acknowledged liberal) and Nick Cuse (not acknowledged but likely) took this approach in order to persuade conservatives to check out the film, but that clearly ain’t gonna happen.

At any rate, the worth of The Hunt as satire is rather limited. When the head elite (Hilary Swank) explains why she and her friends are slaughtering “rednecks” for sport, the reason is inspired (if unlikely). However, the political digs leading up to this reveal are too often obvious and heavy-handed.

No, it’s in other areas where The Hunt excels. As an action-adventure yarn, it’s exciting stuff — that’s mainly because Lindelof and Cuse repeatedly set up characters to be heroes, only to have them shot or blown up a few minutes later. Imagine if The Hunger Games had opened with Katniss Everdeen being instantly offed, and you’ll have an idea of this picture’s modus operandi.

The other selling point is the terrific performance by Betty Gilpin. Her character of Crystal is the most apolitical among the hunted, and she’s also the one with the best survival skills. The approach Gilpin and director Craig Zobel take with Crystal is delicious: While most of those around her flail and fail, she remains calm and collected, opting to turn the tables on her pursuers. What makes her unique is her droll approach to every situation. She’s sarcastic toward ally and enemy alike, and whenever she’s faced with a difficult or unpleasant situation, she often responds with a simple expression of “Huh.”

More than any other element, Gilpin’s characterization is what provides The Hunt with a sporting chance of appealing to diverse audiences.

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