When Lucas’ (Mads Mikkelsen) job as a high school teacher ends abruptly with the school’s closing he secures a position at the local kindergarten helping out around the place and entertaining the children. His off hours are spent hanging out with his drinking buddies on hunting weekends or arguing with his ex-wife over the shared custody of their teenage son, Markus (Lasse Fogelstrøm). He’s even taken the tentative step of beginning a romance with a young woman named Nadja (Alexandre Rapaport) who reminds him of the joys of physical contact.
But it’s physical contact of another kind that shatters his existence and sends his life into a tailspin. His best friend’s daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), develops a crush on him thanks to his kind smile, and time spent with him at school and home, but when he wisely and gently deflects her affection she strikes out with unintentional force. An accidental accusation catches a teacher’s ear, and soon a two person game of telephone has become a list of supposed atrocities committed by Lucas against nearly the entire kindergarten class.
What follows in Thomas Vinterberg’s alternately entertaining and terrifying The Hunt is the disintegration of rational thought beneath the wildly spinning wheels of hysteria. The accusation and facts of the case are dealt with in a timely manner, but the repercussions of mistrust, hatred and fear have a much longer shelf life.
The terror comes in the real world (and not nearly as irrational as it should be) fear of being falsely accused of such a heinous crime. The ’80s and early ’90s featured several high profile and highly salacious cases of entire pre-school staffs being accused of similar large scale grievances, and while those involved have since been exonerated, that fact is almost universally a case of too little too late. Lives were destroyed through falsehoods and modern-day witch hunts that resulted in stains no amount of legal scrubbing could erase.
The film sees Lucas’ friends become antagonists while strangers become automatic enemies, but one of his biggest obstacles arises in the form of depression and self doubt of his own good intentions. Where once he found joy in walking Klara to and from school and rough-housing with the boys he’s now forced to treat them like hot flames and awkwardly jerk his hands away when they come near. “What will it look like to others?” becomes an unavoidable mantra, but even as he struggles internally he’s forced to fight physically to defend himself and emotionally when his time with Markus is threatened as well. Few films will have you wishing for a shift in genre to revenge thriller as forcefully as this one does.
And yet, for all the frustration and fear on display Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm miraculously manage some fun, too. Lucas’ dog, Fanny, barks incessantly whenever his ex-wife’s name is mentioned, and when his few remaining friends and supporters witness Lucas’ long overdue and warm reunion with his son they jokingly warn him not to molest another one.
Mikkelsen is equally deserving of praise for finding pockets of light amid the town’s broken record cries of ignorance and false bravado. Normally thin-lipped and straight faced, he delivers some of the screen’s most affecting half smiles, but it’s the power of Lucas’ incredulous disbelief that he makes most mesmerizing here. We scream at the screen for Lucas to proclaim his innocence, but he sits in shock seeing suspicion and doubt in the eyes of his best friend, the woman he’s been seeing and others. It’s paralyzing, and Mikkelsen taps reservoirs of depression and rage to share the feeling through simple expressions.
If there’s fault here it’s found in the lack of nuance with which most of the townspeople behave. Like a light switch being thrown, the masses simply go from background players to an angry mob with very little effort. True, there’s more gray area to be found with some of the supporting players, but lumping everyone together so disingenuously feels more convenient than honest.
The Hunt is a dramatic character piece not just about Lucas but about all of us. Those of us who avoid certain fields for irrational fear of false accusation, those of us who blindly accept words as fact and act without truth as our goal, and those of us who, like Lucas, are left standing bruised and bloodied in the middle. And as the film’s final frames reveal, simply surviving the hunt doesn’t mean your days as a target are over.
The Upside: Tremendous performance by Mads Mikkelsen; narrative stays focused as it doles out the tale; haunting cinematography; script reveals only what it must
The Downside: Some uncertainty remains; townspeople attitudes may seem too black and white
On the Side: Thomas Vinterberg’s next film is an adaptation (the third) of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far From the Maddening Crowd.
The Hunt is currently playing in limited theatrical release.