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‘The Hunt’ pits Red vs Blue in a violent, bipartisan farce

                                Hilary Swank, left, and Betty Gilpin in a scene from “The Hunt.”
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Hilary Swank, left, and Betty Gilpin in a scene from “The Hunt.”

NEW YORK >> Last fall, the violent satire “The Hunt” became ensnarled by some of the very politics it so playfully parodies.

Universal Pictures pulled “The Hunt” from release after a series of deadly shootings and wave of right-wing criticism, including from President Trump. He called it a movie “made in order to inflame and cause chaos.” Conservative commentators came out in force against it. Fox News’ Dan Bongino declared that “the Hollywood hate machine appears to be taking its anti-Trump derangement syndrome to disturbing new levels.”

Now, the makers of “The Hunt” want a do-over. And they feel they have a movie worthy of not a second chance but a legitimate first impression.

The latest from the low-budget, high-impact horror production company Blumhouse Productions, “The Hunt” isn’t the liberal screed it was accused, sight unseen, of being. It’s a heightened, bipartisan farce that puts the red-vs-blue vitriol of social media into a bloody action-movie blender.

The film, penned by Damon Lindelof (“Watchmen,” “Lost”) and Nick Cuse, is a loose take on “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which wealthy liberals kidnap a dozen “rednecks” and “deplorables” to hunt on a private preserve. That may sound one-sided — its summary helped stoke the controversy — but “The Hunt” lampoons the left as much (if not more so) than the right.

It’s an absurdist melee in which liberals smugly brag of a tweet liked by Ava DuVernay and shout “Climate change is real!” while hunting their prey, and conservatives blame “crisis actor” migrants and “godless elites.” For anyone in the film spouting conspiracy theory or one-sided rhetoric, well, things don’t end well.

“The Hunt” may have gone from the frying pan into the fire. It opens in theaters Friday just as coronavirus fears are spiking in the U.S. But its filmmakers are just happy “The Hunt” is seeing the light of day.

“It’s coming out on Friday the 13th. It already is a zombie. It died and it is now back to life,” says Lindelof, who’s also a producer on the film. “I feel like it’s a huge victory that it’s just being released. Everything else is gravy.”

Universal initially pulled ads for “The Hunt” last year after a pair of shootings on Aug. 3, one at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, the other in downtown Dayton, Ohio. The timing wasn’t right for a movie that conflated gun violence with sport. Once the movie became a target of political debate, the Sept. 27 release date was canceled. Jason Blum, founder and chief of Blumhouse and a producer on “The Hunt,” says that decision was unanimous.

“But it was always the plan to bring it back,” says Blum, who adds “not one frame, not one line” of the film has since been changed. “Everybody jumped to conclusions about what the movie was and nobody had seen the movie.”

Still, the backlash caught the filmmakers off guard.

“I know this sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but I was genuinely surprised when what happened happened,” says Lindelof. “I’m not someone who views myself as a provocateur. I knew that this movie was playing in quote-unquote ‘dangerous’ territory, but I didn’t think that the movie was in and of itself dangerous or was advancing some sort of dangerous message.”

Made for about $15 million, “The Hunt” was inspired in part by Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Lindelof and Cuse were jolted by its combination of social satire, thriller and horror. They endeavored to channel the extreme divisions of American politics — and their own liberal biases — into something that audiences from both sides of the aisle could laugh at.

“As a liberal myself, I feel like I have more license to make fun of myself and the people I spend time with because I know them better,” says Lindelof. “One of our weak spots, as a broad generality, is that we don’t have a great sense of humor about ourselves about certain things and we do tend to be too finger-waggy at points. So I took those things that I don’t like about myself and made them the villain of the movie.”

The movie’s star is Betty Gilpin, who plays Crystal, one of the hunted. She’s ex-military, largely disinterested in politics and, through grit and cunning, turns the table on her captors, ultimately facing off with the group’s leader (Hilary Swank). In a bit of wry casting, the native New Yorker Gilpin (“GLOW”) is playing a Southerner, and Swank, who’s from Nebraska, plays a big city liberal.

It’s a confident, star-making performance by Gilpin. “When the movie was canceled, that was the thing that I was most sad about,” says Lindelof. “People aren’t going to get to see what Betty did.”

Universal has revamped the marketing for “The Hunt,” making its satirical nature more evident and playing up the past controversy. Trailers call it “the most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.”

Craig Zobel, the film’s director, thinks the uproar was, in its way, perfect.

“We were living through a version of what happens in ‘The Hunt,’ in a way,” says Zobel. “The movie has kind of proved its own thesis.”

That thesis could be said to be that extreme partisanship will only lead to our mutual destruction.

“We’re about to go into a fall that will be a torrent of media aimed to divide us during this election,” Zobel says. “I think it’s the perfect time for this movie to come out.”

Few would call this weekend an ideal moment for any movie. With the spread of the coronavirus, health experts are advocating social distancing to limit exposure.

“I have more anxiety about people getting sick than if they go to the movies,” says Blum. “It’s too late because the media has been spent. But if you’re asking me if I had a crystal ball, is now a good time to release a movie? The answer is no. But there’s no way to reverse it because you’ve spent the media and you’ve got to go forward.”

Lindelof is pleased mainly that “The Hunt” will finally be judged for its merits, not the chatter around it.

“I’ve only always wanted the conversation to be: Is this movie good or not?”

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