The Hunt (Jagten)

Denmark (2012) Dir. Thomas Vinterberg

The lone male teacher at a nursery school Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) cuts a sorry figure, living alone with his dog Fanny and fighting an ugly custody battle over his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm). Things begin to turn around for Lucas when co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) takes an interest in him and he learns Marcus wants to live with him. Suddenly everything is shattered when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a young girl at the nursery accuses Lucas of inappropriate behaviour towards her, an accusation everyone is quick to believe.

From Dogme95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg comes this bold and stirring drama that confronts a serious issue while shining a light on the quick to judge small town mentality surrounding false accusations and Chinese whispers. It is an unflinching look at how quickly prejudice and hatred can spread when people succumb to ignorance through fear without establishing the facts and how believing the worst sees an innocent man pilloried and condemned to a life of nothing based on false information.

In a powerhouse performance, which shockingly didn’t receive more acclaim at the awards season earlier this year, Mads Mikkelsen essays the downfall of an honest and honourable man with startling conviction and raw emotion. Lucas is popular with the kids at the nursery school, mostly the boys who like to jump all over him like young boys do. Also taking a shine to Lucas is Klara, the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), who finds comfort with Lucas while her parents constantly bicker, forgetting to pick her up from school. Lucas fills in this parental role and earns Klara’s admiration so she makes him a present of a heart during school and playfully kisses him on the lips. Lucas naturally rejects both as being inappropriate which Klara takes to heart.

Later that day Klara tells the school head Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas exposed himself to her, and, deciding that a child so young wouldn’t lie, automatically decides Lucas is guilty. The fall out is swift and soon it is common knowledge around the small town when Grethe warns the parents at a PTA, leading to more children suddenly revealing similar incidents involving Lucas. With alarming speed Lucas finds himself ostracised for those around him, including his oldest friends Theo and Agnes, while Grethe’s interference halts Marcus’s moving in with Lucas.

The story is straight out of the tabloid press and the hysterical reaction of the townsfolk is equally Pavlovian, much to the frustration of the viewer. The automatic jumping to the conclusion that the innocent faced cherub is naturally telling the truth because someone so young couldn’t have such a vividly prurient imagination seems ridiculous to the outsider, with nothing in the way of evidence to support this accusation. Even a child counsellor (The Killing’s Bjarne Henriksen) decided on the spot with no suggestion of further investigation or character assessment that Klara was telling the truth, kicking the whole domino effect off. Facts? Forget it. Even when Klara admits nothing happened and is prone to “selective memory”, the adults suddenly DON’T believe her and continue to think the worst of Lucas, without even allowing him a fair right to reply.

To watch Lucas slowly crumble both emotionally and physically under the pressure of this harsh and speculation based treatment is hard, which is a credit to both Mikkelsen and director Vinterberg for their respective abilities to create such a bleak but compellingly human piece of cinema. Lucas has a few supporters, including Marcus’s godfather Bruun (Lars Ranthe) who is among a small group capable of rational thinking, but the damage has been done and the once active and much loved teacher is now a bruised and battered shell of his former self, the mental strain of which comes to a head during a Christmas Eve church service.

Vinterberg’s handling of the story is sensitive and intelligent, ensuring that while we know who the true victim is, there is that tiny fragment of possibility someone perhaps is hiding more than they are letting on and vice versa. A steady pace is maintained throughout, making the acts of torment against Lucas all the more unsettling and natural when they occur. Vinterberg creates an eerie atmosphere as Lucas is forced to walk through what is essentially a ghost town to him, nobody wanting to acknowledge him; if they do it is usually abusive or through psychical violence. Young Marcus suffers the same when he arrives in town just as Lucas is arrested, becoming the proxy victim of the local outrage. In a great turn by youngster Lasse Fogelstrøm, Marcus is forced to grow up as he faces the vitriol of the community.  

Production values are high and the film’s glossy images possess a haunting quality, capturing the changing of the seasons from autumn through to the spring with an uncanny eeriness to match the slow descent of Lucas’s fortunes. While Mikkelsen is the unquestionable focal point of the film, the support cast are more than deserving of credit for their performances of the frosty community who turn their back on Lucas. Thomas Bo Larsen may be sporting an unconvincing beard but his emotional is spot on as Theo, Klara’s father torn between loyalties. Young Annika Wedderkopp is also pitch perfect as Klara; it will be interesting to see if she continues with acting or not as she gets older.  

Emotionally draining but socially vital The Hunt is a tense drama that touches nerves where it should and confronts a serious issue head on, bringing a much needed different perspective to a subject usually reserved for the unbalanced melodrama treatment. A truly haunting and sublime film.

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