by Sam Juliano
In The Hunt the devastation wrought on an innocent man and his rural Danish community reaches tragic proportions after an innocuous comment leads authorities on a witch hunt. Family relationships are severely strained, loyalty succumbs to mistrust and banishment, and simmering resentment morphs into guilt by association and finally, violence. Acclaimed Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns to the central focus of his exceptional 1998 film Festen, though it examines a different aspect of sex abuse issue that was broached almost immediately in the earlier work. In the appropriately-titled new film, the thrust is less concerned with denial, than it is with how easily a community is willing to believe an unsubstantiated allegation without any semblance of fair play. The film is certainly a cautionary tale aimed at those who embrace rumors and baseless charges, but even more resonantly it’s a harrowing drama that is powerfully engrossing, all the time boiling your blood over the shocking injustice it showcases.
A mild-mannered, popular teacher, Lucas, trying to make ends meet after a divorce takes a position in a kindergarten day school. An imaginative young girl feels jilted after Lucas smartly gives back her plastic heart and politely rebuffs her kiss. Spurred on by a pornographic image seen on her brother’s iPad, she tells the principal that Lucas is “stupid” and he has a penis that “sticks out.” The woman then uses some persuasive wordplay to turn that declaration into a accusation of indecent exposure. The school psychologist then leads on Klara further with loaded questions that fully support the baseless allegation. The entire community takes to believing the girl under the bizarre notion that all children tell the truth, and a horrific series of events spiral bringing terrible retribution to the formerly well-liked and popular father of a teen age son.
The film is essentially about fabrications, community gossip and innuendo getting nailed down as fact in the public opinion. The results bring destruction to Lucas, whose budding relationship with a young teacher is broken, and whose reputation around the community brings a kind of mass hysteria culminating with an eviction from the local supermarket where he is attacked by and retaliates against a butcher, and an ugly row with his best friend, Theo, who happens to be the father of his child accuser. Theo’s initial sympathy for his friend is hardened by his difficult wife who rejects the young girl’s attempt to recant her lie by suggesting that she is trying to subdue unpleasant memories. Parents are advised to watch closely for hints that there may have been further abuse, and predictably some do make claim that their kids have experienced some trauma. Vinterberg has no interest in exploring the legitimacy or remote accuracy of the charges as he makes it clear from the get go that Lucas is unconditionally innocent, and in fact did everything correctly in response to the unwanted kiss. The director suggests that the social stigma surrounding this most heinously construed of crimes suffocates any real chance for defense, especially for a dignified and stoic man who honorably meets his accusers. As a viewer one experiences acute outrage, and the desire to light a fire under this laid back victim.
The climax in a church on Christmas Eve when Lucas confronts Theo with a telling glare is the film’s most wrenching scene, and it leads the one-time best friend to question the legitimacy of the charges. It also shows the community at large coming to terms with their own demons, and the budding realization that they have condemned the nicest of persons without due process. After Klara is heard apologizing to the absent Lucas in her bedroom for agreeing to the false allegation, Theo finally realizes none of it was true. In the meantime, the beloved family dog Fanny is killed, Lucas’ son Marcus is roughed up at a store, and Lucas evicts his girlfriend when she questions his professed innocence after surrendering to the paranoia that has gripped the community. The theme of innocents being hunted is paralleled by the hunting scenes in the woods where Lucas, his son and others enjoy the sport. It’s not an especially brilliant irony, but it does help everything come around full circle. Lucas never gets beyond the court inquiry process, after the investigation reveals that Lucas doesn’t even have a basement.
The film is elevated greatly by the electrifying turn of Mads Mikkelsen, an accomplished and versatile thespian who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for this performance. A caring and compassionate man, his Lucas is mainly introverted until he so seriously damaged by the emotional disaster that he turns to uncharacteristic rage. His role recalls Dustin Hoffman’s in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, as a quietly intense and mild mannered academic, who is victimized by a raging out-of-control lynch mob. Like Hoffman, Mikkelson sports a raw intensity driven by the heights of injustice and savagery to uncharacteristic retaliation. Mikkalson, who is always cited for his stellar work in Casino Royale, painted a brooding figure and doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee in the splendidly sumptuous Danish period film A Royal Affair. In this decided actor’s piece, both of the young principals are extraordinary. As Klara, Annika Wedderkopp gives a remarkably perceptive and vulnerable performance for a child so young, and despite her age she is able to project deep regret when the events spiral out of control when the man she genuinely likes is the object of hate over her tall tale. Her visit to Lucas without permission to see the dog Fanny is quite moving. As the loyal son Marcus, Lasse Fogelstrom gives an affecting portrayal of a fiercely loyal son who knows his father is being railroaded, and is willing to do everything to prove his innocence. When the affable and affectionate boy is manhandled it’s tough to watch. Thomas Bo Larsen as Theo does a very good job at displaying confusion and disbelief, and is only persuaded to belief the worst when his wife mercilessly turns the screws. Alexandra Rappaport does a nice balancing act speaking Danish and English as a teacher’s aid who has more than a passing interest in Lucas, while Anne Louise Hessing is in impressive bi-polar form as Klara’s mother, and the catalysts of marital rows with her husband.
The film is bathed in vivid autumnal colors in striking widescreen by cinematographer Charlotte Burns, whose razor sharp compositions enhance the urgency of the subject. The images are tinged with melancholy and are properly served by a restrained but effective score by Nikolaj Egelund, that never upstages the extended silences.
Vinterberg, who wrote the searing screenplay with Tobias Lindholm ends his film on an ambiguous but clearly ominous note, intimating that there may never be closure once an allegation is made. It’s the only misstep in the entire film, though it does little to detract from the emotional weight of this searing subject matter, nor the extraordinary performances of it’s principals. Quietly devastating and cathartic, and able to instill lingering indignation The Hunt is one of the best films of the year.