Posted by Ian Mantgani on 13th October, 2012
The Hunt (Jagten) starts almost like a tender village comedy, with Mads Mikkelsen’s nursery assistant Lucas running around playing tag with the kids and listening to their cheek. “Are you okay by yourself in there?” he asks a boy on the toilet. “Hallo? Wipe!” shouts back the boy.
We see Lucas take his son and his ex-wife’s daughter to school. The townspeople go about their daily business. Men go to a hunting lodge for their weekend rituals, which involve more drinking and skinny-dipping than shooting animals.
Ingeniously, shatteringly, out of stupid misunderstandings and misplaced emotions, comes the accusation: A little girl ends up telling her nursery teachers that Lucas has exposed his private parts. And from there the dominoes fall in this intense, human study of a modern-day witchhunt. In broad outlines the story is familiar: The uncertainty, the accusation taking on a life of its own and becoming unreasoning dead certainty; the cold-shoulders, the uproar, the attacks. But in its specifics this is played quietly, intensely, with almost every scene revolving solely around Mikkelsen. Because Mikkelsen plays a reasonable, straightforward man so well, and the townspeople have been established as fundamentally communal, caring sorts too, the film’s situation does not just create frustration or rage, but intense isolation and disappointment.
In 2012 we’re not going to literally see people marching through the town square with pitchforks, but even having said that, the big scenes you’d expect in this kind of thing are played small, to big effect. When Lucas’s best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen), who thinks his daughter may have been abused by Lucas, gets a chance to confront him about the situation, he doesn’t go crazy, but sits and looks him in the eye, burning with spurned faith and seething with horrible imagination, telling him what he will do if the accusations turn out true. The director, Thomas Vinterberg, made a conscious decision not to show the townspeople getting together to demonise Lucas, or the police interrogating him. These things happen offscreen, and because we don’t see them, Vinterberg relieves us of the illusion that we as viewers can emotionally negotiate with the screen – instead there’s a more palpable, frustrated tension things can slip out of control.
There is a church scene near the end of the film that brought me to tears in its intensity – after The Hunt starts with lighthearted life and develops into crushing crisis, it realises that the most powerful ending is to move us with defiant bravery, and eventual mutual understanding, while reflecting with awareness on the pain of what went before. Some find the mechanics of the film professional but absurd: they say the motivating incidents that lead the first kid, and then others, to make false accusations, aren’t convincing. I think they are. Kids are suggestible. Many don’t understand the implications of their actions on the adult world. Indeed they would refuse to budge from a story that piques adult interest, even if it gets someone in trouble, because they’d feel on the spot, and wouldn’t want to get in trouble themselves. And when one kid does something, others follow. The inspiration for this film was in fact the work of a Danish child psychologist who approached Vinterberg with the thesis that “thought is a virus” – you can get any crazy idea to spread.
For Vinterberg, The Hunt is a coming home of sorts. He became a superstar director with Festen (1998), another film in which an accusation of child molestation started a firestorm of drama and confusion. He shot it on handheld digital video in accordance with the ‘Dogme 95’ list of experimental cinematic restrictions, and it was a wild social comedy that felt cheap, in-your-face and intense. Then he went and made a big-budget movie with Joaquin Phoenix that didn’t do very well, and struggled to get films made and seen. Now he’s back in Denmark, again with the digital video and handheld camera, albeit with the more polished prosumer tools that 14 years of intense digital development have brought us. As hi-def video has gotten more elegant so has Vinterberg’s approach to his themes: If Festen was a brilliant farce, The Hunt is a masterly crafted human drama, simple and shatteringly powerful.