Like many directors who make a big splash with an early feature, Thomas Vinterberg did not have an easy time of it thereafter. And while we don’t particularly understand the critical opprobrium heaped on, for example, “Dear Wendy,” a film this writer admires, it’s clear that he has not fully lived up to the potential on display in his landmark 1998 film, “The Celebration.” After all, that film not only launched his career into the arthouse stratosphere, it launched a whole movement, and has arguably never been bettered as the definitive iteration of what Dogme should and could be.
Interestingly, “The Hunt,” which played this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, returns to themes explored in that earlier film, specifically the breakdown of interpersonal relationships under the pressure of revelatory accusations of sexual abuse. But here Vinterberg is unconstrained by Dogme, er dogma, so the film is in a style more classical than experimental, more deliberately staged and, frankly, more beautifully shot than “The Celebration.” However if you’re worried that this might mean a loss of immediacy, let us quickly disavow you: “The Hunt” is quite one of the most brilliantly unsettling, tension-laden films we’ve seen in a long time, and it achieves this by allying us so completely with its lead that the nightmarishly unjust situation he finds himself in becomes our own. In fact, by the end of our screening, people on all sides of us had their hands steepled in front of their faces as though they were watching a horror. Or rather, we think they did. Our own fingers may have been partially blocking our view.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen, in a masterly Cannes Best Actor-winning performance) is a teacher now working in a kindergarten following the closing of his school. He’s adored by the kids and has a close circle of male friends (a circle that only sometimes includes their wives) with whom he has established a tradition of a boozy annual hunting trip. He is estranged from his wife but hopes that his son will come to live with him soon. He becomes tentatively involved with a woman he works with. He is, absolutely, a decent guy, perhaps even lovely. And then one of the children, in response to a perceived slight, accuses him of abuse and his life falls apart. Even worse, it is the daughter of his best friend who makes the initial accusation, and even worser, soon other children "remember" instances of abuse too.
To its credit, the film attempts no did-he-didn’t-he tricksiness. Instead we know from the outset that Lucas is innocent of the charges laid against him, and so we get to experience his hurt, his incredulity, his incomprehension at his gradual alienation from friends and ostracisation from the community, with a similar sense of helplessness and impotence. It has been said elsewhere that the kind of paralysis he experiences is one of the film’s flaws — that in real life, he would be lawyering up or leaving town or, well anything but the kind of martyr-like behaviour that Lucas displays here. But honestly, we never felt that for a minute. Put it down to Mikkelsen’s consummate talent, but every moment of inaction on his part feels totally honest — he is a good man stunned into passivity, who has no secret arsenal to raid when he discovers that innocence and decency are not adequate defences.
Another problematic element for detractors has been one of believabilty — could it possibly happen that one child’s frustrated imagination could spread so quickly, like a virus, infecting everyone with suspicion that instantly metastasizes into condemnation, which itself turns rapidly into a desire for vengeance? But again, we found the portrait of small-town herd mentality frightening in its believability: it is no less possible an occurrence than the Salem witch trials, and those did actually happen. And here events are anchored by another remarkable performance, this time by Annika Wedderkopp as the little girl who starts it all. Her Klara is innocent and cunning, sweet and self-centred, guileless and capable of conscious acts of duplicity and cruelty; she is a child portrayed as we rarely see children portrayed, but the character feels no less truthful for it.
Without wishing to spoil anything, the final coup de grace, that can either be seen as ambivalent (whodunnit?) or definitive (nope, we cannot go back to the way we were; sometimes things are broken beyond fixing) is simply the last in a long, long line of disquieting, not to say upsetting moments. And if the film were not put together with such skill, it might feel exploitative of the audience in that regard. But it’s a smart film too, with just enough glimpses of warmth and humanity amid the bleakness to keep it compelling, rather than depressing. For anyone with even a halfway developed sense of justice “The Hunt” may prove stressful, frustrating, even enraging, but it’s also an unbelievably effective watch, that, if nothing else signals an undeniable return to form for Vinterberg, and yet another blistering performance from Mikkelsen. See it, if only for the debates it will cause afterward. [A-]