Ever since Festen won the Jury Prize here at Cannes in 1998, Thomas Vinterberg’s films have always been compared to it, and always negatively. Now I’m not going to say that his new film The Hunt equals his masterpiece, but it sure comes closest of all his works so far. This nuanced look at how the darker side of a close-knit community can suddenly come to light, and primal reactions can take over when a man is accused of child abuse, is a good study in group behavior (dare I say, hysteria), without playing the blame game.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) has lost his job as a high school teacher, and is also going through a tough divorce. But his situation is starting to look up again: he has taken a job as a kindergarten teacher, there is a budding new relationship on the horizon, and it looks like he is winning the custody battle over his teenage son. Above all, he still has his friends, a tight-knit group of hunting buddies. Whatever happens, these men will walk through fire for each other, that much is clear from the opening scenes.
Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the young daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), has grown very affectionate toward Lucas lately, following several incidents where the attention of her parents faltered. He (rightfully) disappoints her, and out of a typical child’s spite, she makes an untruthful remark to the head of the kindergarten (Susse Wold). Strictly following rules and regulations, Klara is interviewed by Social Services, accusations of more abuses follow, and before long Lucas becomes the pariah of the small rural community, losing his job, losing his new girlfriend (Alexandra Rapaport), and at risk of losing his son in the ongoing custody case. With the help of his lawyer and only remaining friend (Lars Ranthe), Lucas starts his lonely fight against the community that has turned on him.
Now, if this sounds like TV-movie-of-the-week material to you, I don’t blame you. However, while Vinterberg plays with the audience’s emotions left and right (many tears were shed during the screening), he manages to keep out any false sentiment, creating a film that makes painfully clear the difficulty of the situation and how hard it is to place the blame on anyone. The little girl’s initial reaction is understandable from a child’s point of view. Upon further questioning her statements become erratic, out of a normal longing to please the grown-ups, but by then the seed of doubt has been sown, and it’s easy to see why the parents would believe their children. Reactions of people in the community not directly involved in the drama are less defensible, but since child abuse in our society is seen as such a reprehensible crime, their anger is believable and true-to-life.
Vinterberg manages to put all these emotions on display in a balanced manner, but without becoming detached from the story. He is helped by a strong performance by his lead actor. A weary-looking Mikkelsen hits all the right notes as a man who sees the rug being pulled from under him quickly, yet is unable to prove his innocence. If not for Trintignant, I would say this is the best male performance here at Cannes so far, and Mikkelsen certainly is in the race for a prize on Sunday. The supporting cast is apt, none of them really shining, but all doing well in service of Mikkelsen’s central performance.
If Vinterberg falters, it’s in the final stretch, where everything is too tidily wrapped up, although the last shot packs a punch and makes a powerful statement that in this kind of situation, accusations will always stick. Marked for life, indeed. The more ambiguous ending about ten minutes earlier would have been preferable, but this is just a minor criticism. The Hunt is a film that doesn’t delve far below the surface, but it doesn’t have to: there is no philosophy behind child abuse, only the stories of those involved, and they are captivating enough.