The Hunt Review By Adam
New Danish film The Hunt is some kind of marvel. It harks back to socially aware films of the 1970s, films that had the balls to tackle prickly, difficult subjects that often offered no easy answers. It may not make for comfortable viewing — in fact, The Hunt could be the feel bad film of the year — but watching an intelligent discourse on such a tricky subject makes for engrossing drama, even if it comes at the expense of our protagonist: a good man stranded in the void between moral panic and due process.
Set in a small Danish community, The Hunt follows Lucas (Mads Milkkensen), a sensitive teacher on the upswing from a series of disappointments. After being downsized from working at a secondary school, Lucas makes the most of his restationing at a local kindergarten. He finds solace in the rambunctious rapport of the children, and the seeds of a romance blossom with a co-worker. More thrilling to Lucas still is the prospect of his estranged son coming to live with him. But after gently reprimanding a student for misplaced affection, Lucas finds himself facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour. Despite the baselessness of the allegations, the town’s people are quick to panic. Their judgement of Lucas is swift and unflinching, and he soon finds himself fighting against co-workers, neighbours and even those he called his best friends.
One of strongest aspects of The Hunt is its commitment to its tragic protagonist, Lucas. Writer/director Thomas Vinterberg (with co-writer Thomas Lindholm) vividly create Lucas’s world and keenly demonstrate — through a series of realistic interactions — that he is a genial, selfless man. It is this deep drawing of character that makes the discrepancy between the truth and the vile accusations all the more devastating. We have seen this kind of tale before, most recently in 2008’s Doubt. But unlike many films that focus on the martyred, The Hunt’s writers have no interest in obscuring the truth: Lucas is innocent. Explicitly removing any kind of moral ambiguity has a curious effect on this film and it creates a creeping dread and makes one beg the question: will Lucas receive exoneration? The most stinging aspect of The Hunt is how it renders that question obsolete. It becomes quickly apparent that it doesn’t matter whether or not Lucas is exonerated, as he is a marked man – once you are tarred with certain brushes you are stained for life.
The only thing more skin-crawling than the allegations in The Hunt are the techniques used to extract them. Those caught up in the moral panic use twisting and leading questions until they arrive at their desired, inflammatory answers. In this way the film evokes the McMartin Preschool trial of the 1980s: a terrifying and bizarre witch hunt that used suggestive questioning and the invocation of false memories — one child claimed to be molested by Chuck Norris —to create a false endemic. It is chilling and infuriating to watch the efficiency of moral ringleaders — especially the childless principal Grethe (Susse Wold) — as they inform people of the ‘potential danger’ of Lucas. While it is easy to chastise the vigilantes of this tale, it is also easy to understand their motivations. A callous act – assaulting a man in a supermarket — can become a heroic one when the victim is ostracised by society; all it takes is a simple shift in perspective.
A large part of The Hunt’s power can be attributed to Mads Milkkensen’s hugely sympathetic performance. At first his calmness seems misplaced, especially in the face of such monstrous allegations. But Milkkensen is going for the slow burn. He plays Lucas as a man of dignity and moral stance, a man who has an inherit belief that the truth will set him free. When we see that this belief is misplaced, Milkkensen makes us feel the devastation. It would be easy for Lucas to leave his town and to start anew, but to do so would allow the fear mongers and vigilantes to win and, through Milkkensen’s performance, we understand that Lucas cannot allow this to happen. It is a delicate balancing act to combine equal measures of stoicism and true sorrow, but Milkkensen does it, and as such, he should be praised (he won best actor at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival).
Almost as impressive as Milkkensen are the actors that support him. Annika Wedderkopp is a revelation as the object of Lucas’s misery, the fanciful Klara. She is an angelic presence and unlike most child actors she actually dials back the precociousness. Thomas Bo Larsen is heartbreaking as Klara’s father — and Lucas’s best friend — Theo, a man even more conflicted than our protagonist. Not only is Theo facing every parent’s worst nightmare, but he is also losing his best friend in the process, and Bo Larsen makes us feel the confusion and anger that engulfs his character.
This is far and away Thomas Vinterberg’s most accessible film (considering that it’s a subtitled drama about a paedophile witch hunt, that is saying a lot). Eschewing the rigid aesthetics of the Dogma 95 movement of which he was a founder, Vinterberg has made a classically beautiful film. Using gorgeous Danish vistas and golden hued cinematography (by Charlotte Bruus Christensen) Vinterberg has made a film that is visually at ends with his source material, and while the material is hard to watch the film is often anything but.
Feature filmmaking is a medium with a long gestation period (often one or two years, minimum), so it often intrigues me why filmmakers feel compelled to tell a certain story or occupy a certain universe. It would be easy to gravitate to the glamorous — slurping Mai Tais on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp sounds sweet — so I’m always impressed when filmmakers head for difficult material. Vinterberg may not have had a blast (or got a tan) while making The Hunt but he has created an intelligent film and, more importantly, one with a social conscience.