Jul 27, 2013

The Hunt

This gripping film by Thomas Vinterberg deals with a heavy subject in a sharp, lucid way, and has the unbearable tension of a thriller. Lucas (the fantastic Mads Mikkelsen, Best Actor prize at Cannes for his work here) is a quiet aide at a Danish kindergarten in some small town in the forest. It's an unlikely job for a guy like him; he used to be a school teacher and his school closed, so he took the next best thing. He loves the kids and they love him. He is acrimoniously divorced and is trying to see his teenage son more often. He has lots of friends in town, a town where men go hunting, drinking and bonding, where he has several very close friends.
His life is completely upended by an accusation of sexual abuse in the kindergarten, a literal instance of all hell breaking loose. Vinterberg unleashes Lucas' hell in controlled increments that are at once completely realistic and increasingly shocking. He is not interested in the potential ambiguity of the accusation. From the very beginning we know Lucas didn't do it. What becomes hell is when reason, common sense, a man's character and his reputation, are abandoned in favor of hysteria and a lynch mob mentality.
Who can go into the nebulous psyche of a young child and make sense of her confused feelings? If at first the principal tries to deal with it without panicking, quickly, whatever the kid is saying, which is impossible to know with any certainty,  becomes true because: why would a child lie about a thing like that? Soon, things escalate beyond reality, and Lucas loses everything, becomes a pariah, is shunned and attacked. Yet it is not in his character to act like some sort of Bruce Willis, bent on justice and revenge. He is a decent, rational man, who even balks at trying to convince people of his innocence. How can it be possible that his closest friends believe him capable of such a thing?
What preoccupies Vinterberg (as he has shown in other films like The Celebration), is the mass hysteria that can take root in close-knit societies, and by corollary, at large. This is a psychologically precise, extremely well-written film (by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm) with surprising turns after every scene. Each turn is predicated, not on our knee-jerk reactions of instant revenge, swift justice and uncomplicated broad emotions, but on the carefully constructed and observed reality of the characters and the infinite layers of intimacy in their lives.
There are times when one thinks The Hunt is about to slide into cruel audience manipulation. At certain points you hear yourself almost demonizing the child, who is inflicting such careless pain on an innocent man, but the filmmakers don't let it happen. This is a principled film that deals with almost unfathomable emotional complication in each and everyone of the characters: the principal, the kid, the kid's parents, Lucas' son, his godfather, the woman he loves.
The child flip flops back and forth depending on all the stuff the adults are putting in her head and her own sense of something going terribly wrong, and she does tell the truth more than once, but by then no one is willing to listen. They are past the point of thinking and now it's all perverse fantasy, reaction and revenge. Towards the end there is a semblance of a happy ending that almost had me tearing my hair out in disbelief. But never fear. Vinterberg's clear-eyed film shows that one can never recover from such a taint. An unmissable film.

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