Should we appreciate people who murder those with different political beliefs? In everyday life, we tend to find it unacceptable, all things considered, but on screen it makes for the villains we need to loathe. In Die Hard (1988), Hans Gruber is the antipole to John McClane; in The Sum of All Fears (2002), Richard Dressler to Jack Ryan; in The Jackal (1997), the eponymous killer to Declan Mulqueen.
The line between life and screen becomes an issue when it’s blurred by events. In the last 10 days, there have been two mass shootings in America, one in Dayton, Ohio and one in El Paso, Texas. The old debates over gun control have started again, and while Hollywood prefers never to cancel a film – spending tens of millions on a product then throwing it away is not ideal – the release of The Hunt, a new thriller starring Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank, has been postponed.
The contentious issue is the political inflection of its (fairly humdrum) plot. Twelve average Americans, branded “deplorables”, wake up in a remote location, and find themselves being hunted by liberal “elites” with guns. But they gradually turn the tables, start hunting the hunter, etc. In the trailer, our heroine Crystal (played by Betty Gilpin) enters a rural shop and kills two people who try to tell her she’s in Arkansas. (A disguised licence plate suggests it’s Croatia.) They must have been liberals in disguise!
The studio, Universal, were calling it a “satirical social thriller”. But this week, they put out a statement: “We understand that now is not the right time to release this film.” Thrills are easier to come by than satire, which is a delicate, context-dependent thing. Nobody has seen The Hunt yet, but The Hollywood Reporter gives a few colourful details of the plot:
The script for The Hunt features the red-state characters wearing trucker hats and cowboy shirts, with one bragging about owning seven guns because it’s his constitutional right. The blue-state characters – some equally adept with firearms – explain that they picked their targets because they expressed anti-choice positions or used the N-word on Twitter.
(The film was originally going to be called Red State vs Blue State.)
Plenty of people online claim they’ve read the script, though there’s little sign of the actual thing. But with Damon Lindelof writing – he of Lost and HBO’s sinister series The Leftovers – those snippets ring true. (Lindelof’s TV adaptation of Watchmen is due later this year; its trigger-happy action may end up on thin ice.) Twitter, after all, created the febrile air that The Hunt would have breathed. Polarisation, extreme beliefs, a desire to replace facts with force. There was thus an exquisite irony in how Twitter put paid to the film as well. As day is followed by night, so a political-cultural issue was followed by a Tweet from President Trump:
But Trump, a man forever struggling up the hill of language, fingered an issue with political speech. The “elites” are less a measurable class (the ones with money, the ones with yachts) than a group with different beliefs whom you suspect of holding power over you. The Hunt hasn’t fallen victim to an outcry about mass shootings in themselves; after all, the El Paso shooter seems to have hated Mexicans, while the Dayton one was a registered Democrat. (In truly American style, gun violence is for everyone.) Instead, the film was a casualty of the ongoing culture wars.
Just look at its premise, which is little different to that of The Purge, with which The Hunt shares a production team – Blumhouse Productions, run by Jason Blum – and a mildly satirical intent. The 2013 film, led by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, suggested an America so constricted by paranoia that it needed periodic offshoots of violence (once a year, for 24 hours) to survive. What passed for satire was (roughly) the notion that occasional gun massacres weren’t just furniture any more; they were part of the building itself, and in time, America could learn to love crime.
This was, as our own Tim Robey pointed out at the time, “sociologically batty”, and the pearl-clutching – Could this really happen? Will murder be legalised annually for a day? – only died off with the sequels, all of which made roughly 10 times their little budgets, and showed the Purge franchise for what it was: a set of average thrillers with above-average masks, in which our heroes are hunted by powerful people but always come out on top.
The Hunt, produced by Blum, is much the same, but with a political twist. What’s strange about Trump’s response, amplified by commentators on the Right, is that, if anything, the film paints the conservatives as the rebel heroes, and the liberals as the dominant, rage-filled freaks. In the trailer, the former work to unbind each other, pull each other away from mines, dodge bullets and so on; the latter fly on private jets, use crystal ashtrays and kill their prey (when practicable) with stilettos through the eye. You wouldn’t expect the subtler point about mob mentalities to be grasped by Trump, but the superficial one – conservatives are in danger! – might at least have stuck.
The Hunt thus joins a long list of thrillers whose production, months or years in the making, is suddenly hamstrung by events. Studios were especially jumpy in 2001–2, following 9/11, when the age of paranoia got under way. The biggest casualty was Collateral Damage, an $85 million Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle built around a string of terrorist attacks. It was due out in October 2001; after four months and heavy editing, it emerged to a $6 million loss.
At best, the film was hard to market; at worst, it risked seeming to mine a tragedy for cash. (The same worry, according to a source cited in The Hollywood Reporter, has led to The Hunt being shelved: “People [might] think we’re being exploitative rather than opinionated.”)
Culturally, 9/11 was so colossal an event that even comedies weren’t immune. Disney spent 2001 working on an anodyne example called Big Trouble; alas, its plotline involved a nuclear bomb on a plane. Even after a seven-month delay, Americans shunned the film, and it tanked. Even local events can matter: in 2002, a string of sniper attacks around Washington, DC kept Phone Booth, Colin Farrell’s thriller, under wraps for months. This ignited the fury of producer Joel Schumacher. “I mean, there are many serial killers that haven’t been caught… should they not release Red Dragon?” (They did.)
While some events are too powerful to turn into profitable art – 9/11 may remain off-limits for good – others have been rescued by the studios. The standout example is The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s 2014 satire on North Korea and Kim Jong-un. The North Korean government, through an obvious front group called “Guardians of Peace”, hacked Sony Pictures and released huge tranches of private e-mails in an attempt to frighten the studio out of the film’s release.
When Sony pulled The Interview, many American commentators were outraged. President Obama said they had “made a mistake… We cannot have a society in which some dictator in some place can start imposing censorship in the United States.” But as the journalist Eric Hal Schwartz pointed out, Sony’s attempts to contain the leaks were an example of the “Streisand effect” – making too much noise about keeping something quiet – and it would only increase demand for both the e-mails and the film.
He was right. The Interview appeared in a handful of cinemas, quietly, after a year, but its real business was online, where it soon made over $40 million, and became the most successful online release of all time. So, while 9/11 may be bad news for Hollywood, North Korea was not – and with 263 shootings in 224 days so far this year, gun violence is unlikely to prove an unspeakable subject either, as long as the writers let August’s tragedies fade away.
Under The Hunt’s trailer on YouTube, one commenter has it sussed. “The ‘cancellation’ of these release [sic] may be the best marketing move of the year.” They’re cynical, but probably right. The film does look pretty good.