With Governor Newsom indicating that the reopening of movie theatres will be coming soon, this week I’m shining a spotlight on two of the movies that opened in March just prior to the Covid-19 lockdowns and quickly made a splash in faster-than-usual streaming releases. They’re available through Amazon, Apple and all the other usual VOD sites.
First up is “The Hunt”, which brands itself as a “sly satire” that takes our nation’s political divide to radical extremes. In it, a ragtag group of a dozen Trump supporters – strangers from around the US – find that they’ve been drugged, kidnapped and flown on a private to an open field in the middle of nowhere with a crateful of weapons at their disposal.
They quickly discover the reason behind their bizarre circumstances: a group of wealthy liberal elites have paid top dollar to hunt and kill them like animals, and they’re expected to fight back and raise the stakes. Surprisingly, most of the Trump-loving targets are killed within minutes, in incredibly graphic fashion that’s played for intended dark laughs – but are too gross to be funny. We’re talking heads exploding from bullet hits, a graphically gouged eyeball that’s ripped out of its skull and a woman who is blown in halves before mercy-killing herself with a gun.
Soon, only one of the hunted is left: a feisty former soldier named Crystal (Betty Gilpin), who quickly turns the tables by killing off many of the people hunting her, while also unraveling the mystery of why this is happening. This might sound fairly entertaining, but the film is sloppily written, with many of the revelations happening randomly and a last half-hour in which a sudden series of flashbacks try to explain everything but lack enough motivation to make sense.
“The Hunt” was originally supposed to be released last September, before conservative media raised an outcry about the fact Trump fans are targeted for death and inspired an angry Tweet from the president himself about the film. However, upon its March release six months later, the film opened to anemic box office and proved to be too slipshod to work as effective satire. And bizarrely, the movie takes the side of Trump-loving Becky, with the villains being the cartoonishly portrayed elites, so one wonders how this ever sparked upset from the political right in the first place.
The cast is composed mostly of unknowns like Gilpin or somewhat-popular actors like Ike Barinholtz and Emma Roberts who are quickly killed off. The biggest name is two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, who plays the mysterious woman behind the hunt, though the explanation is so poorly done that even that seemingly important role is really a waste of her time.
Next up is “The Way Back,” a true-story basketball movie starring Ben Affleck as Jack Cunningham, a former basketball star who walked away from the game due to personal demons but gets a shot at redemption when he takes the job of coach for his alma mater’s team more than 20 years later. It’s the kind of movie that would normally be infused with pumped-up inspirational moments, but instead surprisingly takes a more low-key approach to its moving tale that works on a different level.
The film opens on Jack’s dreary everyday life, working construction and secretly swigging beers and vodka all day before occupying a barstool each night. He’s the kind of guy who drinks a beer in the shower and can drain at least a 12-pack from his fridge in a given night, and we soon learn that he’s been separated for a year from his wife and sparking growing concern in his sister.
Things change when he gets an unexpected phone call from his alma mater, Bishop Hayes High School, with a request to take over coaching duties for their hopeless basketball team. Jack’s reluctant to take the gig because it will force him to confront his past, but he shows up anyway. As he slowly overcomes his bad attitude, he’s gradually able to convince his team – whose members are shorter than their opponents, and who only have one player with star potential – to win by chipping away at their opponents with relentless application of fundamentals.
Yet it’s still far from a smooth ride for Jack, as he clashes frequently with the priests overseeing him and his assistant coach (Al Madrigal) over his often-profane mouth and struggles with drinking. As he faces his real problems, “The Way Back” moves beyond sports-movie clichés to provide a truly moving portrait of a broken man putting his life back together.
Affleck is outstanding in the role, digging deep emotionally to show Jack’s wounded interior while taking on a paunchiness that effectively shows his lack of care for himself. The rest of the cast is also solid, but none of the other characters aside from Jack’s wife (Jenina Gavankar) really get a chance to register strongly. Only the team’s star player Brandon (Brandon Wilson) has his personal life delved into, as he tries to convince his bitter father (Glynn Turman) to support his efforts to shine on the court.
Overall, director Gavin O’Connor (“The Accountant,” “Warrior”) and writer Brad Ingelsby make “The Way Back” a warmly human movie rather than a rah-rah cheer-inducer. And there are some surprising ways that they handle the story’s climactic final stretch, so I’ll give them credit for creating a film that brings a fresh approach to a timeworn genre.