Without dispute, the most vicious of all crimes, even more so than murder, has to be child molestation. It’s a crime that, unlike the killing of another, leaves the victim forever scarred while at the same time devastating families and in some cases placing entire towns under an ugly veil of suspicion. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has explored the subject to great acclaim in his breakout feature, The Celebration, a film so precise it sparked the whole Dogme 95 movement. But unlike his Dogme colleague, Lars von Trier, Vinterberg has struggled to match his early potential with subsequent films. With the frighteningly real and deeply unsettling The Hunt, Vinterberg again tackles the social breakdown that occurs in the wake of abuse charges, and in the process proves himself a filmmaker of the highest echelon.
The genius of The Hunt is that, while there is no true mystery involved, it never ceases to be a gripping, challenging thriller that puts us squarely on the side of the accused. The great Mads Mikkelsen, in a Cannes Best Actor award-winning performance, is Lucas, a scholarly kindergarten teacher in a small Danish town. From the moment we meet him, it’s apparent that Lucas is different from the rest of the townsfolk. He’s gentler, more hopeful, and genuinely nice to where he always seems to have time for others. That includes his circle of male drinking buddies, most especially his best friend, Theo. Perhaps because of his job, or partly due to his complicated relationship with his estranged son, Lucas also has closeness with the town children. This includes Theo’s precocious daughter, Klara, who has grown a bit too fond of Lucas’ attention. After a perceived slight on his part, Klara does what kids often do; she tells a little white lie that then spins maddeningly out of control.
Her accusation is that Lucas has sexually abused her in some unclear way, but the teacher she gives this information to doesn’t really care about the details. Something has to be done, and seemingly within hours, Lucas’ life is in a shambles. The news spreads like wildfire across a hard-working blue collar town where little of excitement ever truly happens. Lucas’ attempts to win custody of his son are destroyed, he’s fired from his job, and the romantic relationship he forged with a co-worker is suddenly on shaky ground as she questions his innocence. A pariah in every way and ostracized by friends and family alike, we see Lucas struggle to come to grips that his genuine and tender-hearted overtures to the lonely Klara could be twisted to make him into a monster.
Co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, the latter having directed the equally devastating thriller A Hijacking, The Hunt puts us squarely in Lucas’ shoes as he suffers the metaphorical slings and arrows (and literal bricks) from the people he once called friends. So right away we identity with him as the true victim, and perhaps because of that we are fully engaged in Lucas’ plight. It makes us question what we would do in his situation, trapped in a real life stew of paranoia and hysteria to rival that of the Salem Witch Trials. But at the same time, the seething townspeople are never portrayed as evil, even as they give in to an ugly case of mob mentality. Their motivation seems to be to protect the children, first and foremost, and as more children suddenly begin to “remember” similar crimes perpetrated against them, the adults take the most extreme measures to stop it. Their reaction is completely believable, and for those who may think it a dramatic embellishment, one needs look no further than the flood of phony child abuse scandals that plagued America in the 1980s. Vinterberg also does something few other filmmakers are willing to do, and that’s portray children as complicated people capable of kindness, shocking untruths, and devious acts with real consequences.
It’s a little off-putting to see the very masculine Mikkelsen in a role that requires him to be a little more reserved, and some may take issue with the fact that Lucas isn’t…well, angrier. He doesn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight, at least not a physical one, and at times it’s like he’s lost in a sea of his own helplessness. But really, it’s all in the nuance of Mikkelsen’s incredible performance that we don’t need to see Lucas lashing out at every turn to know that he’s standing defiant even as he has no real defense against the words of a single child.
The conclusion poses a number of questions, not the least of which is whether or not a community can ever truly recover after something like this occurs. Can the accused ever be looked at in the same way again? What kind of stain on a person’s soul does something like this leave? Vinterberg does seem to be trying to have it both ways in the end, and a more definitive answer would have served the film well. Like last year’s Compliance, The Hunt is an exceedingly bleak film that exposes an ugly side of human nature. But it’s also compelling and honest in a way few movies are, and will spark endless discussion amongst those who experience it.