Following a bunch of Republicans who are chased down for blood sport by rich liberals, The Hunt was postponed by Universal after Donald Trump tweeted ‘The movie coming out is made to inflame and cause chaos.’ He wasn’t wrong about its intentions, but Craig Zobel’s satire is occasionally toothless. Less Team America: World Police (2005) than The Running Man (1987), it’s a solid piece of Blumhouse fare that uses its own genre awareness to send up political negligence. Zobel presents this hunt as ‘Manorgate’, a conspiracy theory peddled by Qanon types that Liberals enact as a sort of moral lesson on Facebook commenters, including a compelling Betty Gilpin. Its eventual release date on March 11 2020 made it an unlikely kin to Bacurau, the ingenious film from Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, which was receiving its Arthouse rollout after winning the Jury Prize at Cannes 2019. But both films had their theatrical runs cut short, victims of the Coronavirus lockdown. In Bacurau, a small Brazilian village is taken completely off the grid by American tourists attempting a massacre, who get more than they bargained for. Watching these films together on VOD, where they now reside, it’s hard to ignore their similarities in illustrating the rich/poor divide through sick kills. In Bacurau and The Hunt, victims fight back to varying levels of success, with particular focus being put on the bodies that are used as a commodity as the murderers rack up kills, video game style.
Blame it on The Purge (2013). Surely not even Ethan Hawke anticipated the cultural impact of Blumhouse’s schlocky thriller. Speculating on a world where all crime is legal for one night a year, The Purge passed $80 million box office on a $3 million budget while being written off by critics for shallow and reactionary politics. Director James DeMonaco, who helmed all but one of the four-strong series, uses the cartoonish scenario to point out what we all know: that the American elite use tradition to systematically oppress and kill the underclass. Rich families protect themselves in highly secure gated communities (in the first film, Hawke got so rich and flashy off selling security that his neighbours conspire against him). The Purge franchise repeats imagery of fancy white families performing ritual killings of homeless and Lantinx people, relishing the aesthetics of white supremacy before letting a diverse band of scrappy working class characters fight back against Richard Spencer lookalikes. Their outcasts vs elites recital is vague enough that any viewer can cast themselves in the role of grizzled Frank Grillo, hobo with a shotgun one minute, and presidential bodyguard the next.
The specifics of the films are less than the sum of their premise, which captures the simple horror of global class disparity. The ‘Purge’ concept takes a Battle Royale scenario and leaps into the viewer’s imagination with such vividness that it can endure the diminishing returns of sequelitis, fan fiction (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74KAGEe-IdU), or an inevitable Rick and Morty parody. However, the genre was born in an earlier era of depression. The Most Dangerous Game, a 1924 short story by Richard Connell in a Hemingway mode, sends up Big-Game safari hunting by having a Russian Aristocrat go after American tourists for sport. A Joel McRea/Fay Wray starring adaptation was filmed at the height of the Great Depression (1932), at night on the King Kong set by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack. It has much of Kong’s exosticism and mystic violence. The callous Russian aristocrat who preys on McCrea’s Big-game businessman draws lines between the rich and the really rich.
In April 2020, the much maligned streaming service Quibi re-adapted Connell’s story into a vehicle for Liam Hemsworth, with Christoph Waltz stretching himself to play a sophisticated, verbose hunter. But the genre’s growth into the wider-reaching ‘Purge’ leaves Waltz and Hemsworth biting its dust. “Purge” presents a clear class dichotomy that ignores how factors like race or disability might impact intra-class power, and then allows for a viewer catharsis when the victims inevitably turn the tables on their attackers. That both Bacurau and The Hunt pick apart the “Purge” concept while indulging the viewer in those same cathartic pleasures should come as no surprise. This is cinema-du-troll.
Globalisation is high up on the agenda in these films, establishing the US as a kind of safe zone outside of which lawlessness and carnage runs rampant. In The Hunt, it is difficult to figure out how much of this is supposed to be ironic. Although it amusingly hints that this is in part an EU-endorsed endeavor, that the neo-liberal agents used deregulatory technology like Airbnb to set up their grand scheme, it also depicts Europe as a forest outland overrun with refugees. The commentary that a member of Manorgate can infiltrate a group of refugees and use them as ‘Bad Actors’ to be in the right place at the right time for the needs of this bloody cabal is intriguing, but it amounts to a mere gesture to reality that has no direct parallel to feed off of.
Bacurau is far more specific in its globalisation commentary, contrasting Third Cinema tropes with American Genre and Spaghetti Western technique to question globalisation and international filmmaking. Though Bacurau makes its debt to John Carpenter clear, with the town’s school named ‘Joao Carpentiera’ for the great master, Filho and Dornelles’ spirit can be seen in one of Carpenter’s Fullerian influences. Cornel Wilde’s underrated The Naked Prey (1965) is a ripping yarn which submerges the viewer in awful colonialist imagery, luring the western viewer into safety with white soldiers ordering around South African tribesmen, intercut with stock footage of cheetahs hunting zebra and the like. The tribesmen soon get their own back, killing all but one of the soldiers, played by Wilde himself, and then hunting him for sport in a near-wordless action sequence that lasts almost the whole run time.
With just a few hints of science-fiction, the first half of Bacurau presents the inverse of this. Scenes of communal life, with a funeral that the whole town attends while tripping on a local hallucinogenic, of sex work that isn’t frowned upon by the townspeople, and references to the town’s lineage all suggest the kind of festival film that impresses critics but fails to find a wider audience. Think of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, whose slow cinema docu-fiction contrasts heightened emotion with very long takes and meta-storytelling that only appeals to a very niche arthouse audience that follows his work over a long time. Bacurau intentionally suggests this mode of filmmaking in its languorous sketches of townspeople, while rupturing its own myth-making with glimpses of the future such as the 50s style UFO that chases down a motorcyclist. Central to Bacurau, the place and the film, is appreciation of the histories, stories, and even myths that make up the town’s atmosphere. There is the Pacote / Acacio story, where this ex-bandit’s crimes are shown on a big screen in the town square. The museum is full of memories from a gestured at ‘uprising’, suggest Bacurau to be a mere chapter in a wider chronicle of the town.
Myth is an equally important factor in The Hunt, but the central myths are of the more modern technocratic fear of Fake News. ‘Manorgate’ is directly analogous to the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy around the 2016 US election, where right wing online commenters theorised that a DC pizza restaurant was being used by The DNC to harvest children. A similar conspiracy takes place in Zobel’s world, where a group of liberal elites are accused of murdering ordinary middle Americans in a Purge-like situation, Manorgate, after a leaked group text makes it online. The participants in the group chat are shamed online and lose their jobs, motivating them to set up the conspiracy for real as revenge against the most ardent commenters. Technology is aligned with Manorgate, who use social media data to track down their victims and set up the simulated version of the Manorgate conspiracy based on online imaginings.
The Hunt’s analogy rests on the notion that the Libs stage a real Manorgate as retribution for the fake Manorgate myth propagated by MAGA. That the Libs themselves came up with the scheme, joked about in a leaked text chat, adds a further complication, and one that’s quite difficult to follow as a straightforward analogy. The implication appears to be that if fake news reports outlandish conspiracies that resemble movie plots, there is often a germ of truth to them too. Pizzagate itself may be false, but many DNC (and RNC!) high-ups appear in the Jeffrey Epstein Black Book. Abuse is rife among the liberal elite, but The Hunt implies that abuse is a response to provocation rather than a perk of power. Though it sees Europe as the wild west, every American character is trying to get one over on the other. The future resembles a techno-fascist nightmare of benevolent data collection. It made me think of Isiah Medina’s big-tech-propaganda-failure Inventing the Future (2020), which imagines a world in which socialism is achieved through tech companies sharing their resources so that the universal basic income supported proletariat may leave their bodies and form a hive mind. Its laughable wish-fulfillment (and what wish!) makes the viewer long for the violent cruelty of The Purge, which may at least rid us of the Macbook-class.
Both Bacurau and The Hunt understand this. These films are savvy enough to understand that myth now translates as cultural signification, casting appropriately winking antagonists to situate the film in a wider pop-cultural tapestry. Udo Kier’s smirking German mercenary, who trains and leads the tourists attacking Bacurau, encourages the viewer to point ‘Nazi!’ at the screen. A blurry picture framed and hanging on his wall has overtones of Joseph Mengele, featuring a bunch of strapping blonde men doing salutes outside an amazonian house. Filho/Dornelles know their audience is thinking this, so they prod at the Levinian stereotype by having Kier laugh and dress down a brash American for using the Nz word. Nazism is an essential part of Brazilian myth, a conspiracy theory that predates even Pizzagate.
If Bacurau lampshades its own cliche as an excuse for triteness, then The Hunt finds new ways to subvert its own myth. Hilary Swank is cast as the key antagonist Athena Stone, who privileges #girlboss feminism and woke word salad above all. Swank signifies feminism, known for Oscar-winning roles exploring gender in Boys Don’t Cry, about a trans-man, and female-boxing drama Million Dollar Baby. Her turn in The Hunt is just as incisive in deconstructing a type of pantsuit-essentialist glass ceiling smasher and prosecco-guzzler. For Athena, a knock to her pride from a working class hick is worse than the structure atop the corporation she works at stopping her social climb. She would rather see a MAGA chud change than her multi-billion dollar business.
As Bacurau mocks the cynicism of films like The Hunt, it finds that simplistic politics of retribution are complicated. In using Western technique and Spaghetti style on the colonisers, it rubs up against its own hypocrisy. As much as they have flipped the US-centric genre on its head by having the colonised people fight back, Bacurau and The Hunt have merely reaffirmed class roles through cartoon depictions. Purge is an essentially reactionary genre that asks for its viewers to experience the same catharsis in each iteration. Until a filmmaker figures out how to coherently ironise the genre, it will continue to mask simplistic politics under the guise of satire.