The Hunt is one of those great movies that are hard to recommend. It’s a truly superb film, but it’s also remarkably confrontational. It asks troubling questions about our inherent inability to deal with fear and our frequently irrational relationship to guilt and innocence. It’s a profound and emotionally devastating film.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a kindergarten teacher in a small close-knit Danish town. Lucas has just recently turned his life around following his last failed teaching job and a messy divorce. His newfound consistent income means his teenage son can move away from Lucas’s ex-wife and back into his life. He’s just started dating an attractive co-worker at the kindergarten, and he’s just had another successful hunting expedition with several of his pals including his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen).
After lending a cheerful hand several times to his student, who is also Theo’s daughter, named Klara, the young girl begins to harbor a crush on her teacher. When Lucas tries to gently rebuff her advance, Klara complains to Grethe (Susse Wold), the kindergarten’s head instructor. The complaints to Grethe are innocuous at first, until the young girl offhandedly references pornography she saw accidently.
A shocked Grethe confuses the statement and asks Klara a series of leading questions and becomes convinced that Lucas has engaged in pedophilia. Failing to wait for proper evidence and police intervention, she proceeds to convince other parents of the possibility of sexual abuse within the school at the hands of Lucas, who is wrongfully deemed a predator by his closest friends.
The interesting thing about The Hunt is that there is no mystery or ambiguity to the plot. Lucas is not only definitely innocent, but the fundamental lack of physical evidence to the contrary would make a courtroom conviction unlikely.
Director Thomas Vinterberg, working from a script co written by Tobias Lindholm, has very little interest in making a thriller or procedural. Instead the film is a fascinating examination of a community gripped in fear, showing once reasonable people responding with varying bouts of hysteria at the mere idea of someone threatening their children. Their reactions to Lucas grow more and more despondent and aggressive and their paranoia begin to affect the mentality of their children. A darkly comic vein pops up in the film whenever the parents in the community go further and further out of their way to convince themselves and their aloof children that something terrible has happened.
The brilliant deconstruction of mob mentality and sharp screenplay would be enough to make The Hunt fascinating, but it’s pushed further with the aid of some fantastic performances. Mikkelsen’s performance has been rightfully praised unanimously and it totally earns the best actor award he won at the Cannes film festival last year. Mikkelsen’s Lucas is engrossing portrait of broken man, and his suffering and confusion throughout the film is totally engaging and emotionally devastating.
Matching Mikkelsen is Bo Larsen’s wonderful turn as Theo. It’s a similar character to Bo Larsen’s other collaboration with Vinterberg, 1998’s The Celebration. In both, Larsen plays a character torn between following a deeper thread of truth or succumbing to a lie perpetuated by his surrounding community, but the aggression inherent to the character he played in The Celebration has now been replaced with a sort of sad emasculation. Theo is almost as damaged by the events of The Hunt as Lucas, but in a more subtle way.
Vinterberg’s eye lends an unnerving energy to the film and he gets some big emotional reactions with very small narrative gestures. Its showcases great control over the structure of the film and Vinterberg is constantly finding new ways to ratchet up the tension in interesting ways. That aside, the film is just quite handsome, with director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen lending a nicely varied look throughout the film.
The Hunt is truly engaging, but I do hesitate to recommend it without warning. This is an emotionally draining film. It showcases the systematic breakdown of a kind and reasonable man and the accidental evils that erupt out of paranoia. It’s dark territory navigated fearlessly and those who are willing to follow along will be rewarded with a strong contender for best film of the year.