All of Them Witches
By Ashley Clark

The Hunt
Dir. Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark, Magnolia Pictures

In The Hunt, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg returns to subject matter—an allegation of child abuse and its consequent fallout—which formed the basis of his 1998 debut The Celebration. The earlier film, a stark chamber piece filmed in accordance with the no-frills aesthetic dictum of the Dogme 95 movement co-authored by Vinterberg (alongside compatriot Lars von Trier), ultimately left no doubt as to the culpability of its patriarchal villain. Conversely The Hunt, a lushly photographed drama which has earned rave reviews across Europe, makes it clear from the start that the accused is innocent. The ensuing road-to-vindication narrative is surely fitting territory for a director whose stock has fallen since the heady days of his ecstatically received debut, following a run of critical duds and barely released films.

The Hunt’s wronged man is Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a divorced former secondary school teacher working in a kindergarten to make ends meet, and embroiled in a bitter custody battle for his teenaged son. Despite these personal problems, he maintains an ostensibly solid position within the tight-knit community, which the film swiftly establishes. A precredit sequence finds him engaged in rowdy, good-natured horseplay at the pier with his male friends, and it is soon confirmed that he has a similarly tactile relationship with the children at the kindergarten. This juxtaposition of adult and child play, and Lucas’s interpretation of the negligible gap between them, suggests his adherence to old-fashioned standards of intergenerational interaction. (In interviews, Vinterberg—who lived in a commune as a child—has lamented the passing of such an innocent time.) It is perhaps Lucas’s willingness to engage in rough-and-tumble behavior with the kids that influences headteacher Grethe, played with steely determination by veteran Danish actor Susse Wold, to believe five-year-old Klara (preternaturally convincing Annika Wedderkopp) when, one day, she claims that Lucas has exposed himself to her.

Despite misleading marketing materials accompanying the film’s UK release that dubbed Klara’s act “a random lie,” Vinterberg makes a clear effort to provide some context for the child’s transgression. In a few short but crucial early scenes, this lonely girl is revealed to be all-but-ignored by her bickering parents, shown images of hardcore pornography by her giggling brother and his friend, and finally seen to plant a firm kiss on the lips of the startled Lucas as he reclines in a kindergarten playpen. Shortly thereafter, Klara offers Lucas a gift, but twigging her inappropriate crush, he politely yet firmly rejects it. In these brief moments, Vinterberg suggests an associative logic in Klara’s thought pattern, which culminates in an impulsive decision to frame her rejector; that the pornography has impacted her psyche is made clear when she refers [in her lie] to Lucas’s erect penis as sticking out “like a rod,” just as her brother and friend had done in reference to the pornography. Vinterberg is careful not to subsequently demonize Klara, instead showing a confused child whose malleable mind is manipulated by the film’s real villains: the rest of the community. They trade in a virulent, erroneous groupthink founded upon the idea, espoused vociferously by Grethe, and later Klara’s mother, that children simply do not lie, and when Klara tries to confess, they shut her up. The entire village is swiftly convinced of Lucas’s guilt, and consequently enveloped by a hysteria reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which the Salem witch trials were dramatized to critique the McCarthy witch hunts in 1950s America. But the film ultimately better recalls the ludicrous community-wide outrages that frequently sweep the 2D townsfolk of TV’s South Park. The completeness of the collective psychological lacunae combined with the sheer speed of Lucas’s fall from grace seriously strains credibility. When one school employee remarks, “I don’t think anyone here is in doubt as to what Lucas has done,” despite a complete lack of evidence, the viewer similarly must be in no doubt as to what Vinterberg has done: he has rigged the game, and in doing so especially painted the village’s womenfolk (save for Lucas’s girlfriend—notably an outsider of Eastern European descent) as mendacious alarmists.

One suspects Vinterberg is chiefly interested in affording Mikkelsen the opportunity to give a master class in stoic, put-upon acting. Strong-jawed, straight-backed and softly spoken, he radiates a grim, clenched intensity. To accentuate Lucas’s isolation, Vinterberg is fond of catching him alone in the frame, and zooming carefully in; the lens an imitation of a rifle’s crosshairs. It’s a visual motif that corrals strongly with the none-too-subtle overarching deer-hunt/manhunt theme. One shot even frames Lucas’s face directly between two wall-mounted deer heads, giving him the look of a hapless trophy, already defeated, his fate sealed. His quest circumvents the ethically troubling waters swum in by the protagonists of, say, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down; here, the audience is given the opportunity to luxuriate in the bubble of moral certitude. Lucas’s adoption of violence, when it belatedly arrives, is so wholly justified within this borderline Manichaean context (in the second half of the film he has a rock thrown through his window, is physically assaulted, and has his dog murdered) it’s essentially designed as a crowd-pleasing, punch-the-air moment of victory.

The Hunt is often absurdly calculated, but it is also impressively atmospheric, distinguished by a fairytale-like mood of intangible discord. The seasonal setting (it takes place across November and December) allows for an effective visual transition from crisp late autumnal warmth to thematically apposite snowy chill, while Kristian Eidnes Anderson’s eerie sound design—which makes a feature of silence being interrupted in unusual ways—further ramps up the unease. One particularly impressive example comes in the only sex scene (between Lucas and his girlfriend), which is accompanied by the sound of a squealing, shut-out dog, prefiguring Lucas’s imminent banishment. Finally, Vinterberg deserves credit for muddying the waters of an ostensibly straightforward conclusion with an ambiguous coda, in which Lucas, supposedly absolved and reintegrated into the community, narrowly avoids having his brains blown out in the woods by a mysterious pot shot. A delicate moment rich in uncertainty, it suggests Lucas will never fully make it back into the hearts of those who ostracized him. If only the highly strung The Hunt had more moments like this to ponder.