In June 2016, J. D. Vance released Midwestern memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” to a country in the grip of election fever.
Vance’s nonfiction book, following his upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, was intended to shed light on the crises hitting America’s small towns: unemployment, opioid epidemics, failing institutions and limited opportunities. It also detailed the resentment that some Middle Americans felt over welfare policies that appeared to reward lazy behavior.
Following a modest first print-run that sold 10,000 copies, the book went on to become a massive hit, selling over 1 million physical copies and countless more on e-book and audio. Vance’s memoir became a must-read for all who wanted to understand the ascension of President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, concepts like “diseases of despair” and “economic anxiety” because of globalization were gaining traction among the liberal intelligentsia as an explanation for Trump’s meteoric rise.
Ron Howard picked up the rights for a film adaptation, and it was off to the races. With the stunning success of “American Sniper” in 2014, studio executives began scrambling to capture the heretofore neglected conservative audience and greenlit multiple projects, such as “12 Strong” and “13 Hours,” featuring Middle American protagonists and patriotic themes.
From a certain perspective, then, it was only a matter of time before Blumhouse Productions became involved with their paranoid political thriller “The Hunt,” a classic “The Most Dangerous Game”-style action chiller with an added sociopolitical wrinkle: The wealthy hunters were self-described liberals. The prey were poor conservatives. In this, the movie positioned its bad guys as literal metaphors for the economic forces that helped shape the Trump wave of 2016.
Blumhouse, mainly known for making horror movies, has played around with this sort of blunt political messaging before – its “The Purge” franchise is famous for unsubtle social commentary on race and class relations. What was untraditional was that they were making a horror movie with conservative undertones this time.
In any case, they seemed extra high on the commercial prospects of the idea. A California Film Commission report indicated a budget of about $18 million. The star-studded cast featured Oscar winner Hilary Swank and TV stars such as Emma Roberts.
By now, it is generally known how this particular experiment ended. After horrific mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, the studio decided to pull marketing for “The Hunt” out of respect for the victims. This decision resulted in the film coming under attack by conservative commentators.
Much of the ire, apparently, rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s premise. Pundits on Fox News condemned the idea of a movie about wealthy liberals hunting conservatives apparently without realizing that the latter were the heroes, and the former, villains.
The bile reached its climax when the president, in a vague statement, appeared to call the movie “racist.” After several executives received violent threats, Universal made the decision to cancel the film’s release, reportedly with the consent of the filmmakers.
The irony of this has not gone uncommented upon, even within conservative circles. As one National Review film critic opined, “For once, a genre movie is built around an anti-progressive premise … But our film-critic-in-chief got it cancelled.”
In any case, the team behind “The Hunt” certainly seems to lean leftward. Screenwriter Damon Lindelof, of “Lost” and “The Leftovers,” is a Democratic party donor who openly condemns white supremacy in his latest series, a “Watchmen” sequel for HBO. One of the show’s producers, Jason Blum, has been outspoken in his criticism of Trump. Whatever viewpoint that “The Hunt” was produced from, it doesn’t appear to be a conservative one.
That could be key to understanding why the film found itself so marooned after the horrors of El Paso and Dayton. Despite the overtures made to conservative audiences, the film’s most visible targets are still the “limousine liberals” with a taste for cognac and a distaste for “deplorables,” less AOC and more DNC.
The aforementioned “prey” of the movie, meanwhile, were chosen for pushing conspiracy theories and using racial slurs, which becomes profoundly uncomfortable when one remembers that the real El Paso shooter engaged in the same behavior.
If nothing else, “The Hunt” is a case study of what happens when one tries to appeal to both sides in one of the most polarized moments in American history. Who knows if and in what state Universal will now release the film. Jason Blum, at least, still hopes it’ll see release at some point in the future.
Still, there’s something poignant about “The Hunt” and its failure at outreach. When “Hillbilly Elegy” was first published in 2016, there was widespread hope throughout the liberal world that a bridge could be built between it and the rural and suburban counties that were increasingly turning to Trump. Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment, a blanket dismissal of 25% of the voting public which the movie takes a snipe at, was widely derided.
Since then, a raft of studies has suggested that Trump’s election had more to do with racial anxieties rather than economic ones. Outrages, such as the president telling democratic congresswomen to ‘go back’ to their countries, have soured liberal progressives on outreach. Perhaps “The Hunt” might have worked in the brief moment when outreach seemed possible. Instead, it’s 2019, and “The Hunt” built a bridge that has already been built.