There are just some things you don’t doubt. The horror of war, the importance of family, the innocence of children. I suppose it’s a primal tendency, this easy allocation of truths and archetypes. It’s a bitter irony to note that for all our insistence on human complexity, at the core of society lies simple values founded on assumed truths. After all, without anything to agree on, how can communities exist? Values are of course important, but sometimes in our blind fealty to them they can lead us to fixed conclusions, spawning fictions more convincing than reality. In The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg explores what happens when these values are challenged, and the irreversible consequences of a single idea.
Here’s how Inception, the ultimate movie about ideas, describes one: “Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” This aptly describes how a Danish village comes to view Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a nursery teacher whose life falls apart because of one child’s lie. The charge of pedophilia is not a light one to make; the severe punishment we exact on perpetrators is a testament to the weight we associate with the corruption of innocence. But what happens when our terrors get the better of us, when in our desire to protect children we end up corrupting them?
Excluding malevolent little devils (as in Looper, as well as many horror movies), children do not often appear as antagonists in films. But little Klara doesn’t fit the standard mold of the antagonist either. In fact, no character does. As Mikkelsen says in an interview, “Nobody’s trying to do something out of maliciousness. Everybody’s doing it out of love and fear.” Which makes the story all the more chilling, because in our minds a tragedy on this scale requires a face, a malign intent, to pin it down on. But as we come to realize, often that’s not the case. We see what we want to see. We create our own fictions.
There are easy choices, in life as in art. With The Hunt, it would have been very easy to slip into a black-and-white portrait of a community gone mad, incensed by its own conjectures. It would have been just as easy to paint Lucas as simply the poor victim. But the village we see here is much more nuanced than that, and a feeble, whining Lucas never appears on the screen. Mikkelsen portrays him as a man of obvious pride, who must reconcile his conviction of his innocence with an admission of his predicament. Mikkelsen’s performance singlehandedly carries the film, but The Hunt involves such a high-tension act that even the tiniest snag would have dispelled the effect altogether. Fortunately the movie comes with a superbly chosen cast, down to the most minor character. Thomas Bo Larsen and Lasse Fogelstrøm give commendable performances as Lucas’ best friend Theo and son Marcus.
Ultimately, The Hunt is about the fears that plague us and the measures we take to protect ourselves, sometimes at the expense of truth. It is an exploration of human weakness, how easy it is to unravel lifelong friendships, how little it takes to mark a person with the permanent stain of doubt. Most importantly, it invites us to examine ourselves, at the way we see and interact with other people. For even as we feel righteous anger against characters on screen, our accusations are offset by a haunting uncertainty: Would I not have done the same?
This careful balance results in a film that is cinematic yet social, emotional but not maudlin, satisfying but also disquieting. With all this going for it, about halfway through I feared that the movie might end on a wrong note—with too happy or sentimental a conclusion. But I need not have worried. Vinterberg’s capabilities are manifest in one delicate scene between Lucas and Klara. The conclusion that follows is brilliant. Raw and unsettling, The Hunt ends on a perfect pitch.
‘You want to tell me something? The whole town is listening.’
‘What do you see? Nothing. There’s nothing.’