Thomas Vinterberg’s frank and intelligent discussion of society’s instinctive, well-intentioned, but sometimes damaging reactions to reports of child abuse is immediately recognisable as a Vinterberg film. Like his breakout Dogme 95 masterpiece FESTEN (1998), The Hunt dares to tackle a challenging subject that most filmmakers would rather avoid in an engaging, no-nonsense manner.
We follow Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) a divorcee nursery worker loved by his friends and by the children he cares for. Though he lives alone with his dog, his life seems to be getting back on track – he finds his job fulfilling, he gets a girlfriend and his teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) wants to move back in with him. His favourite at the nursery is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and the pair are inseparable – Lucas is Klara’s second father figure and devoted friend, Klara is the daughter Lucas never had, and the one person he can just have a normal conversation with (his close group of friends are a loud, brash, juvenile rabble). One day Klara sees Lucas play-fighting with a group of boys at the nursery and tries to join in, but being a little girl not prone to random acts of pretend violence, she gives him a kiss instead. At this Lucas tells her in no uncertain terms that this wasn’t appropriate for a little girl to do to a grown man. Klara reacts unexpectedly to this apparent rejection of affection and starts spreading rumours about Lucas around the nursery. Upon hearing her claims that Lucas exposed himself to the children, the head of the nursery Grethe (Susse Wold) begins legal proceedings and Lucas is condemned forever in the eyes of his nearest and dearest as a child molester.
The main aim of The Hunt is to ask whether the way Western society deals with accused sex offenders is justified. The film pretty openly criticises the tendency for most people to jump to conclusions and morally condemn someone at the merest hint of child-related inappropriateness. Not that Vinterberg is advocating for us to go easy on paedophiles, but rather that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Take, for instance, in the UK, the recent police “Operation Yewtree”. A highly publicised Metropolitan Police investigation that was opened after evidence of DJ and TV presenter Jimmy Savile’s extensive and repeated sexual abuse of under-aged girls coming to light following his death. The investigation lead to the arrests of a number of other British TV presenters and entertainers who were alleged to have committed connected, or similar acts of abuse to minors. Due largely to extensive media coverage, the slightest whisper of a well-known face being questioned by the police caused the British public to brand the accused as a paedophile. While evidence has emerged to commit several men in addition to Saville, others were released without charge, and had suffered months of torture and unfounded hatred at the hands of the media and the public because of the wrongful accusations. Clearly The Hunt deals with a different situation in a different country, but as a UK resident Operation Yewtree was the most recent comparison that came to mind.
I find it fascinating that we have Mads Mikkelsen in the lead role as Lucas, as while has played a variety of roles in his native Denmark, on American screens he is generally cast as a villain (CASINO ROYALE, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, TV’S HANNIBAL). From the start we are presented with a protagonist who looks “a bit off”, so we can on one level understand how quickly he is outcast. Clearly his accusers think the same – it only takes the word of a little girl against his to ostracise him from the community, and destroy his life. If he more conventionally good-looking, more talkative and didn’t live alone with his dog, would he still be accused without hesitation? Would he still be accused if he wasn’t the only man working in a nursery? Needless to say, Mikkelsen is mesmerising in the role, and the heartbreaking performance he gives as his world collapses around him is the glue that holds the entire film together. He can say so much with a single facial expression, but of particular not is the scene where Lucas makes a stand. He is abused, beaten up and physically thrown out of a supermarket because of what he is supposed to have done. Broken and bleeding, he shakily stands up, brushes himself down and walks straight back into the supermarket to claim his discarded shopping. He quite rightly won Best Actor at Cannes.
The title is symbolic for a variety of things. “The Hunt” immediately conjures images of the barbaric, paranoia-fuelled medieval witch hunts, in addition to being a story about the hunt for the truth, the hunt for proof Lucas’ innocence and the mark of uncertainty placed on his head for life – no matter what the evidence says, there was that moment of doubt, and he will always be the hunted. We are constantly reminded of these layers of meaning as Lucas and his son get to spend time together, and go hunting for deer. In a sense, in society’s eyes Lucas (and by extension, his faithful son) have become hunted game, creatures that could justifiably have been killed. This point is hammered home shockingly in a moment in the film’s final act.
While the writing and performances in the film are exceptional, we also can’t overlook the fact that despite it’s horrific subject matter, The Hunt is a beautiful film. Vinterberg and his cinematographers appear to have put an incredible amount of thought into every single frame. Each shot is painstakingly set up, and the Autumn/Winter Danish landscape strewn with frost and dead leaves looks equally striking and bleak, appropriately enough for the film’s subject matter.
Carefully constructed, flawlessly performed, emotionally draining and undeniably brave, The Hunt reaffirms Thomas Vinterberg’s position as one of the most talented and thought-provoking figures in world cinema. Like Festen, The Hunt makes for deeply uncomfortable, yet captivating viewing, and also like the Dogme film it’s uncompromising in dealing with the complex and divisive subject of child abuse. The film wasn’t even considered in any category at the 2013 Academy Awards, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. The Academy, after all, likes their films challenging, but not too challenging. SSP