Only a handful of people have seen the most controversial movie in the country. After Universal Pictures canceled the release of The Hunt following an outcry led by Fox News and other conservative outlets, it’s likely that the film will never be seen in theaters—or possibly never released at all.
In a statement released over the weekend, Universal explained its thinking. “While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for The Hunt, after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film,” read an all-caps statement released on the film’s website. “We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”
The implication was that the studio was pulling the movie because of the recent horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Tragic current events—most notably the September 11, 2001 attacks—have caused Hollywood studios to alter release schedules in the past. But it’s just as likely that it was kowtowing to Fox—and, for that matter, to President Trump who also tweeted about the film, presumably in response to the network’s coverage of it.
The decision to pull the movie—and coverage of the controversy itself—suggests a continued failure to grapple with bad faith attacks from outlets like Fox News, which endlessly discussed the film last week. “At the end of the day, [the elites] look at us as deplorables,” Zachery Ty Bryan said on Fox & Friends First, the network’s (very) early show. “They look at us as racists and bigoted evil people. When you can dehumanize a side or a group that supports Trump in this case… you can do anything, so why not hunt them like you would animals?” Lou Dobbs, one of Trump’s favorite hosts, called it “a sick, twisted new movie,” saying that the plot “is fiction, but it sounds a little like reality, doesn’t it?”
Conservative actor Robert Davi, appearing on The Ingraham Angle, argued that the movie could inspire potential attacks on conservatives. “We just saw what happened in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas.… To do a film at this particular time—freedom of speech, freedom of art, culture, I like that. I like people being able to express themselves.… But there’s a responsibility in our business to not have a business like this happen,” he said.
The president then took up the baton, tweeting that the film was racist and proof that Hollywood, like the left, only cared about inflaming the country’s divisions.
It was probably not accidental that Fox and others seized on The Hunt in a moment when many outlets were pointing out the similarities between the rhetoric used by conservative outlets, including Fox, and that used in the screed posted online by the El Paso shooter. Focusing on The Hunt was a way of pointing the finger back at the left and arguing that Hollywood, not conservatives, was the real advocate of political violence.
But to do that required blatantly ignoring the specifics of the film itself. Relatively little, it is true, is known about the specifics of the movie, which stars Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz, and country musician Sturgill Simpson. What is known, however, makes it clear that there is no foundation to the criticisms being lobbed at the film. The Hunt is based on “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story that is likely familiar to tens of millions of Americans who have completed middle school. The hunter in that story is the villain, and his prey, the hero; the trailer makes it abundantly obvious, via editing and music, that the same is true of The Hunt—the “liberal elites” in this movie are mustache-twirling baddies and there is nothing ambiguous about it. Coming from Blumhouse, the studio behind Get Out and The Purge franchise, one could rightfully expect a horror movie with a socially focused message. The absurdity of the idea that the movie was glorifying or even encouraging violence against conservatives should be obvious to those who recall “The Most Dangerous Game”—or, for that matter, anyone who watched the two-minute trailer.
Universal’s decision to pull the movie may have been understandably motivated by recent tragedy; this is undoubtedly not the moment for an extensive campaign marketing a film about the inherent fun in mass, political violence. But a byproduct of that decision is a win for conservative media. They are now well practiced in throwing cynical, calculated tantrums aimed at muddying the waters and portraying themselves as the real victims of a culture war that they continue to inflame.