The biggest player on indie theater screens this weekend may be the Trayvon Martin murder case. The Sundance-winning “Fruitvale Station” is based on an incident about the police killing of a young African-American man in 2009, but its perspective on race-fueled violence in American society clearly echoes the issues in George Zimmerman’s trial, which wrapped today with the defense’s closing arguments. Watching Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale,” a compellingly directed if occasionally didactic tearjerker, it’s impossible not to experience the rage of the family and friends as their beloved cohort, 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) dies after being unfairly shot during a scuffle with police.
In “Fruitvale” the movie is the message, but it’s not alone. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” also opening today, centers on the wave of paranoia that informs a mob mentality and lead to unjustified victimization, a central factor in the case of self-deputized neighborhood watchman Zimmerman’s decision to shoot Martin.
In Vinterberg’s tense story, which the director based on a handful of actual cases, a sullen Mads Mikkelsen plays humble teacher Lucas, whose stable place in his small community is tested when the young daughter of his close friend creates the (mistaken) impression that Lucas has sexually abused her. Before Lucas has the opportunity to explain himself, virtually the entire town turns against him. Vinterberg’s best filmmaking since his Dogme ’95 entry “The Celebration,” the movie showcases the unstoppable ripple effect that causes Lucas’ former colleagues to shun him.
At the grocery store, he’s met with a series of dark stares, with each wordless reaction shot speaking volumes about the irrational fear that emerges from a confluence of unfounded accusations and active imaginations. Though not showcasing racism, the fundamental emotions hail from the same school of conspiratorial bigotry: When a hive mind feels unsafe, it looks for a scapegoat to create the illusion of purging its evils.
That’s a terrifying prospect and Vinterberg stages the entire scenario in thriller terms: In one of the most alarming moments, he introduces the jarring sound of a gunshot from an unseen shooter. As viewers, we’re drawn into the unsettling ambiguities of the situation that register on Mikkelsen’s beaten-down, deeply empathetic face. It’s never clear if everyone truly believes that Lucas has done something wrong or if they’ve simply allowed the virus-like surge of militancy to wash over them.
Some critics have complained that “The Hunt” loses credibility because Lucas never clearly explains to his accusers how the misunderstanding took place. Though Vinterberg claims that several conversations in the film in which this discussion could have taken place were drawn from real-life transcripts, there’s another reason why the movie actually benefits from leaving out this crucial ingredient. In early scenes, Lucas’ place in the community has been so thoroughly secured that the idea he could harbor pedophilic tendencies never occurs to his peers. His innocence is so self-evident that he barely feels the need to detail the reasons for his innocence.
That naiveté gets at the root of group-think plaguing social and racial biases: It’s always a one-sided battle when the victim isn’t looking for a fight. “The Hunt” renders the dramas of the Trayvon Martin case in broader terms. Far from implicating only certain corrupt individuals, it shows how everyone faces the risk of oppressing the innocent — or turning into the oppressed.