Mark Reviews Movies

The Hunting Ground


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kirby Dick

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material involving sexual assault, and for language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 2/27/15 (limited); 3/20/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 19, 2015

We hear many stories throughout The Hunting Ground. It becomes difficult to tell one woman's story apart from another's. They all start to sound the same, and that is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the film—the predictability, the consistency, the apparent "normalcy" of these stories and the events that shaped them.

They all start with something along the lines of there being this guy. The storyteller knew him a little bit. They were friends or friendly, or at least he seemed nice when he started talking to her at the bar or at some party. There's always—or it seems that way—alcohol involved: drinks at a fraternity house, drinks at a local bar, or drinks in a dorm room.

"Alcohol is a weapon," we hear from one male individual whose face is blurred. It feels unfair to call him or people like him a "boy," because it implies some innocence, or a "man," because they've decided by their actions that they don't deserve to be called that. This male individual is a convicted rapist.

Director Kirby Dick allows him to talk and only in one scene, if only so that we can understand the mindset of someone like him. Let his words be a warning: There are human males like this. In the big picture, they aren't many in number, but they know what they're doing. This one says that college and university campuses are ideal places for people like him to hunt for victims.

The topic is rape and sexual assault at colleges and universities across the United States. The film uses those pesky things known as facts—statistics and reports and anecdotal evidence—to argue with thoroughly convincing precision that this is an epidemic.

It's not just a few guys who let things get out of hand or didn't know what they were doing. It's not—despite what some of those other males who don't deserve to be called "men" may say—a bunch of women crying wolf for attention (The percentage of false accusations in rape cases is the same as any other crime, but for some reason, certain people want to pretend every rape accusation is fake). In archival news footage from decades ago, we hear one guy, whose friends had been publicly shamed as rapists after school officials did nothing investigate the many accusations, make that argument before actually wondering aloud with perverse skepticism in his voice, "If a woman says, 'No,' does that automatically make you a rapist?"

These crimes happen, and they happen much more often than the institutes of higher education and even the victims say they do. We hear the numbers. Less than a quarter of rape and/or sexual assault victims actually report the crime. We see more numbers in a montage, showing how many accusations of rape and sexual assault actually led to any kind of punishment over a period of years. There are more than a few zeroes within the list. Even without the comparison to national statistic, that number—as well as a lot of ones and twos—should lead to a healthy dose of suspicion.

We hear from those who did report (and, in one heartbreaking instance, the father of a young woman who took her own life rather than face the humiliation of injustice)—to the administration of the college or university and/or the police. If the repeated themes of stories of the crimes themselves are depressing, the consistency of the responses from school officials and police is downright infuriating. These survivors start telling more stories, and those stories start to sound the same. A dean of students starts to ask about what the woman was wearing, how much she had to drink, and how certain she is about their memories. "If you could do it again," one survivor recalls someone with her school asking, "would you have done anything differently?"

There are no questions about the criminal. All the blame is either directly or indirectly placed on the victim of the crime. Someone brings up that she did some research about how to report her assault to the school. She couldn't find anything on the university's website, but she did find a document instructing male students what to do if they were accused of rape or sexual assault.

The priorities displayed by these institutions here are so skewed in the wrong direction that it boggles the mind. There's a reason, a collection of experts inform us, and it's obvious: money. No school wants to be the first to admit that there's a problem with rape and sexual assault on its campus, because they would become known as "the rape school." Tuition dollars are important, but so are the funds raised from alumni, who might be hesitant to make donations to an alma mater with that unofficial title.

The fraternities bring in money, so the universities ignore it when a frat like Sigma Alpha Epsilon (which you may have seen in recent headlines involving a racist song) becomes known on campuses across the country as "Sexual Assault Expected." From that aforementioned news package, we see fraternity members standing outside an all-female dormitory chanting, "'No' means 'Yes.'"

Sports play a big part, so when a student athlete is accused of rape, it's covered up until the end of a season, when the student is quietly expelled. One particular student athlete, who was on track to making it professionally, was accused. The detective in charge of the case was an alumnus and donated to the sports program. When the accusation became public a year later, anchors on a national sports network had the gall to claim that he was the "real victim."

So many documentaries about vital social issues do a great job of making us angry but ultimately make us feel helpless to do anything. The Hunting Ground is an exception. Yes, the survivors tell the stories of their past, but we also see them out there making a difference, spreading the word, and putting these institutions to task with official complaints to the United States government. It's working, and the film follows their example. This a compelling call to act against this crisis and the institutions that, through their reluctance to act, enable it.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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