It wouldn’t be right to attend a major film festival without sampling at least one soul-crushingly depressing feature and this year the drama making the fest rounds to bum out viewers (in the best possible sense of course) in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. The latest Danish film out of Lars Von Trier’s delightfully twisted Zentropa Entertainment already scored a Best Actor trophy at Cannes and now premieres in at The Toronto International Film Festival with considerable expectations. The good news is that it lives up to the hype, providing unconventional gut-ripping drama that takes on the subject of child molestation without a hint of sentimentality or emotional manipulation. The movie will put your through the ringer, but in such a thoughtful and cleverly constructed way that you might not mind.
The dependably excellent Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who is loved in his small Danish community. He has a special relationship with all of his students, but is particularly close to Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). The young girl has a turmultuous home life and Lucas knows her parents, so he sympathizes. He tends to look after the girl when she wonders out of the house during her parents latest fight and they have a nice bond. One day in class Klara tries to kiss Lucas on the lips and he calmly explains that’s only for mommies and daddies. The little girl is hurt by the rejection of affection and spins an unexpected story of molestation for the principal. It never happened and the young girl regrets it, but all of the adults in her life understandably won’t let the issue go. The interrogate her several times and put words in the youngster’s mouth when she embarrassingly doesn’t know what to say. Suddenly Lucas is a pedophile in the eyes of his entire community. Cue hysteria.
Lucas knows he’s innocent and tries to plead his case. However, Vinterberg knows that judiciousness doesn’t often come into play when such accusations emerge. Quickly the idyllic town kicks off a which hunt (hence the title if you haven’t worked that one out yet). Lucas is ostracized and abused. Threats are made, beatings are carried out, and the teenage son who he was planning to assume custody of is no longer allowed to see him. Throughout it all Lucas puts on a brave face and finds solace in his few friends, but Vinterberg is too cynical to allow immediate forgiveness. The abuse becomes unbearable, yet is rationalized by the small town since pedophiles are the only social group undeserving of public sympathy (see To Catch A Predator for more).
The Hunt is easily the best film that Vinterberg has made since his stunning Dogme-launching breakout The Celebration. The sick satirical humor from that movie isn’t present here, but other than that the films follow similar themes and approaches. It’s another chance for the director to explore how easily family bonds can be broken and perverted by dark secrets. Since we know Lucas is innocent, seeing how the family and community react is completely terrifying. Were he guilty or the audience was kept in the dark about his innocence, the behavior of the town wouldn’t seem shocking. Yet, the way Vinterberg frames his story is powerfully revealing of how quickly civilized humans can degenerate into vengeful animals. Watching it all play out is unbearably tense and undeniably powerful. Yet, at the same time no one is demonized in the film, everyone has their own understandable motivations and watching this tragedy through conflicted sympathies can be a painful. It’s a masterfully constructed film that slips up only in the final two scenes that abandon harsh realism that Vinterberg so carefully constructed in favor of symbolism that underlies themes that were inherent in the material with a little too much mustard. Still, in context of everything done right in the movie, it’s a minor quibble.
Mads Mikkelsen has already received a number of accolades for his work in the film and justifiably so. He’s been an up-and-coming character actor for about a decade now playing everything from a Bond villain (Casino Royale) to a pathetic street hood (Pusher 2), and a silent hero/killer (Valhalla Rising). One thing he rarely gets to be is an average humane man, but that’s what he does in The Hunt and he does it well. Of course in playing Lucas, he’s forced to go through almost unthinkable levels of emotional torment, but hey that’s what makes it a great role. Mikkelsen’s background in villains helps sell how easily the community turns on him, yet the actor never forces arch mystery onto the character. He sticks to being a wounded average man and might have to clear out some shelf space for statues later in the year. Even though the film is Mikkelsen’s show, everyone in the community deserves attention for their impressive naturalistic performances, with special notice awarded to the young Annika Wedderkopp as Karla. She’s asked to play an uncharacteristically complex child’s role with some heavy sequences to pull off and never for a second feels unnatural.
Make no mistake, watching The Hunt isn’t exactly escapism. However, if you’ve interested in challenging dramas with complex portrayals of life, it’s an amazing experience. Dark, cynical, harsh, and sadly truthful, it’s hard to imagine that there will be a more deeply affecting film released this year. Mikkelsen deserves all of the attention he’ll inevitably receive and Vinterberg can finally feel relief in knowing he won’t be forever known purely as The Celebration guy. A movie so good that it’s worth spoiling an otherwise pleasant evening over.