As you watch The Hunt, you no doubt will pull your sweater just a little tighter around you to try and ward off the cold of the stark Scandinavian winter depicted in Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s gripping psychological drama, but you will fail. Nothing can protect you from the emotional chilliness of the close-knit rural community portrayed on screen.
Lucas (a stoic Mads Mikkelsen, perhaps best known to American audiences as Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s Hannibal, and as the Bond villain in Casino Royale), finds out first hand that the loyalties of his friends and neighbors in the small town where his family has lived for generations do not run as deep as he would have expected. A teacher at the town kindergarten, Lucas has an easy, natural rapport with the children, including little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (an excellent Thomas Bo Larsen).
Klara has a bit of a schoolgirl crush on Lucas, which is understandable, since he is gentle and kind to her, while her own parents often fight. She makes Lucas a paper heart, and he suggests she give it to a classmate instead, leaving her feeling rejected. Later, she witnesses and overhears something vastly beyond her comprehension: her teenage brother laughing with his friend about pornographic images on his iPad, which he briefly shows to Klara. These two seemingly unrelated events, however, combine in Klara’s five-year-old mind, and cause her to make a false accusation of sexual abuse against Lucas, without understanding what she’s saying, or the complex and life-changing ramifications of such an allegation.
How Klara’s accusation plays out among the school faculty and administration, as well as among Lucas’s friends (including Klara’s parents), his girlfriend Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport, intelligent and grounded), his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), and his fellow townspeople make up the bulk of the film, and what Lucas endures is harrowing to watch. Mikkelsen inhabits the living nightmare of being falsely accused of a crime with utter realism, moving from disbelief and incredulity to increasing frustration and anger and, finally, to stoicism and grace. I am not at all surprised Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival last year for this performance; it really is remarkable.
The film establishes early on that Lucas has a bit of a contentious relationship with his ex-wife, and, just as the accusations are levied, he has finally made progress with his ex to allow Marcus to come live with him. That decision, and Lucas’s very livelihood, are both put in indefinite jeopardy as Lucas must deal with the charges against him and the town’s suspicions and hostility.
In its depiction of unchecked mass hysteria (the scene where Klara is questioned by a school counselor is particular shocking, as he virtually puts words in her mouth), the film is reminiscent of the 1995 HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial, the dramatization of the much-publicized Los Angeles-area McMartin preschool sex abuse allegations and trials of the late 1980s. In six years of litigation in that matter, no one accused ended up being convicted, and all charges were eventually dropped. In The Hunt, too, similar to the McMartin story, upon being told of Klara’s accusations, parents of other kindergartners soon report that their children also have been “victims” of Lucas’s suspected pedophilia, and very few are inclined to side with Lucas, despite the lack of concrete evidence. And even when Klara, slowly realizing that something she has done has brought harm to Lucas, tries to recant, her parents quickly dismiss her. Only Lucas’s friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe) and Lucas’s son Marcus are unwavering in their support of Lucas and his innocence, although Theo finally does eventually come to have doubts about his daughter’s story.
The flim’s title, then, of course works on both literal and metaphorical levels; the community portrayed in the film has a rich tradition of hunting in the surrounding forests, and the film establishes early on that Lucas and his friends all partake in the sport, at a very competitive level. Marcus earns his hunting license (a right of passage significant enough to warrant a large party with toasts and speeches), and the film closes with Lucas, Marcus, and their friends on a hunt.
On another level, quite obviously, “The Hunt” of the title also refers to the hunting of Lucas; the townspeople need to identify and punish a perceived predator immediately, and with no ambiguity. The willingness of the school’s faculty, parents, and community to accept Lucas’s guilt so quickly and to turn against him (a scene where Lucas tries to buy groceries in the town market is especially brutal) also recalls Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible, perhaps the best known dramatic study of how false accusations can spread unchecked and cause irreparable damage to all involved.
The film’s end will have you talking for days; even a week after seeing the film, I was still thinking about it and weighing possibilities in my mind. In addition to directing the film, Thomas Vinterberg also co-wrote the screenplay with Tobias Lindholm, and the result is a tight, compelling story from first shot to last. Without giving too much away – just enough, I hope, to make you want to see the film – suffice to say that the brilliant and unexpected ending explores ideas of forgiveness, redemption, friendship, and acceptance in ways that will make you wonder if any of these can be true, real, and long lasting.
Aside from the acting award for Mikkelsen, Cannes also awarded this film the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, which, according to the Cannes website, honors “works of artistic quality [that] reveal the mysterious depths of human beings through what concerns them, their hurts and failings, as well as their hopes.” Indeed, I can think of no other picture released this summer that so beautifully examines the mysterious – and not always admirable – depths of human behavior.
The Hunt opens in Bay Area theaters today. In Danish with English subtitles.