Monday, July 22, 2013

The Hunt (****)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg


I'm not sure any group of people are better at making uncomfortable films than the Danish. Led by Lars von Trier, their films generally explore topics that most people would rather just believe don't exist. In the 1990's, Thomas Vinterberg and von Trier worked together to create the Dogme Manifesto, a cinematic declaration to make purely unfiltered movies without all of the frills that draw the film business away from reality. The first and best film from this movement was The Celebration, written and directed by Vinterberg. The Dogme group didn't last long, and its fair to wonder if it was more gimmick then substance, but these Danish filmmakers continued to tell these stories, albeit with greater means, making audiences squirm as they explore darker and darker material. The Hunt is a continuation of that tradition, and it's probably Vinterberg's best film since Celebration.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelson) is a popular kindergarten teacher, beloved by his students and the staff. He used to be a successful high school teacher in the same town, but after the school was shut down and his wife left him with their son, the kindergarten is Lucas' first building block toward remaking the life he used to have. He has his group of friends, including his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larson), and his work, but he still wishes to have his teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), at home with him. Theo's daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), is the closest thing that Lucas has to his own child. She's a student at the kindergarten, and quite often he is walking her home or letting her walk his beloved dog, Fanny. But Klara can't totally fill the void that is left behind by his family.

Lucas' problems take on a whole different scope, though, when an offhand remark is made to one of the school's administrators. Suddenly a small lie spirals into an accusation and before Lucas is even made aware, he has been accused of sexually assaulting a student at the school. When the word gets around, all sides descend into hysteria. If he molested one of them, then he most certainly would have molested several. He's fired from his job and even worse, his son and ex-wife are informed of the accusation. Now, his chances of ever getting his son back are put into even more peril. With little exception, the entire town turns against Lucas in the blink of an eye. In supermarkets and even churches, he is made to feel unwanted and disgusting. Alone, Lucas must fight for his own innocence against a town that is blinded with outrage and won't listen.

Like Celebration, The Hunt is a film without any real menace or violence within it but is fraught with tension, a pulsing suspense brought on by the knowledge of the evil human beings are capable of. Much has been made of the craziness and damage that can be done by a simple accusation of sexually abusing a child. The documentary Capturing the Friedmans may be the very best cinematic example of that. But The Hunt takes that craziness and gives it a much more human face, a documentation of how trouble can brew by just a few miscommunications and the confusion of an innocent child. The characters in this movie spend a lot of time reacting to information, taking it all in, and making decisions based on what they've heard. There isn't a single reaction in this movie that seems forced or written on a page. It's all just seems so damn real.

Mikkelson won the Best Actor Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for this movie, and while I can't say I saw very many other competitors to compare it to, I can't say I disagree with the decision. Mikkelson is so measured throughout, presenting Lucas as an overly decent man. His demeanor rarely cracks, even when faced with the possibility of his life crashing down on him. Lucas' own unraveling is instead done with soft glances, meditated thoughts and responses to those who threaten him. As Lucas' volatile, confused best friend, Larson also wows as a man trying to come to grips with what his friend may have done. The entire cast roams freely, and it becomes quite obvious that Vinterberg is certainly less harsh than his former partner, von Trier, on his cast of actors. Vinterberg's stories are just as brooding, but he's more interested in watching suffering as opposed to von Trier, who seems to like to make his actors suffer.

The Hunt simply is not a film for American audiences. It's too willing to show adults and children talking about things that we don't want to think about. A scene where a child is interviewed about a possible sexual attack puts together a lot of images that we'd rather store away in a closet away from reality. But this is what makes The Hunt so effective: in forcing us to imagine these images, we are made to understand why this town of ordinary people would be led to such a witch hunt against Lucas. And further more, its helps us to realize what a daunting task that Lucas has if he wants to protect his name. The Hunt will make you cringe and it will leave your mouth agape. It will hit you with the biggest force that could ever come out of such a quiet film.


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