Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten) is his strongest since the breakthrough Dogme feature Festen (1998), and shares some of its unsettling themes. Bolstered by a genuinely outstanding lead performance from Mads Mikkelsen, this is a button-pushing psychological drama that plays out like Miller’s The Crucible shot through the prism of paedophile panic; the kind of which peaked in the feral UK tabloids over two decades ago. With laser-like intensity it highlights the ease with which a lie can be quickly accepted as fact, efficiently exploited via mob mentality and effectively deployed to destroy a life. It is expertly tooled to provoke disbelief, anger and despair, brilliantly made on many levels, but also somewhat rigged, leaving it open to charges of sensationalism.
Unlike the recent Austrian film Michael or the controversial Kevin Bacon movie The Woodsman, the central character in The Hunt is not actually a paedophile. There’s no ambiguity when caring and popular village teacher Lucas (Mikkelsen) firmly and responsibly rejects a gift from Klara (one of the children in his class) and gently explains that her entirely innocent but still inappropriate kiss (he is surprised by her when group play fighting with his class) is the wrong thing to do.
But the aftermath of his rejection results in the young girl, who is also the daughter of his best friend and hunting buddy (Thomas Bo Larsen), fabricating a story that he exposed himself to her. This lie is quickly accepted as fact by a naturally appalled head teacher, based on the rather dubious basis that children would ‘never lie’ about such things.
The pivotal scene – a masterclass in fingers-down-blackboard unwatchability – sees a child psychologist interpreting Klara’s every utterance as truth of Lucas’ guilt and effectively boxing the child into a corner to fit a hysterical conclusion. It’s chilling and palpably exploitative. But would it actually happen? This official line gives the rumour credence and weight, and from that moment the metaphorical noose around Lucas’ neck becomes an actual one. Twice Klara tries to retract the statement (“I said something silly, he didn’t do anything”) but it is too late. Lucas is ostracised and then subjected to a series of attacks as his life collapses and the village turns against him.
The propulsive narrative of The Hunt and Tobias Lindholm’s script raises a lot of questions. Why does Klara make up the story (a troubled homelife is hinted at but never fully explored)? Would everyone in the community turn on a man so well respected on the basis of something one child says? Would long-time buddies turn their back on an old friend immediately, even when a key piece of evidence is dismissed? There’s also something in Lucas’ passivity which is almost maddening, but perhaps culturally correct. And why doesn’t he get a lawyer? It is to Lindholm’s credit that we only think of these things after absorbing the shock and intensity of the film.
What The Hunt does quite brilliantly is explore the nature of how mob mentality gestates and spreads like a virus. Lindholm and Vintergberg are probing at something genuinely daring here; the suggestion that, no matter how well intended, paedophile-panic has created its own agenda of fear and a terrain where sense goes out of the window in favour of ‘protection’ even when the threat is essentially a phantom one.
A few critics have cited The Hunt as being no more than an above average TV movie that deals with a panic that some say itself has been overestimated. But there are moments here which elevate the material, including one remarkable scene that breaks the tension with a bad taste joke to tangible, palpable relief. There’s a masterful synthesis between Anne Osterud and Janus Billeskov Jansen’s editing, which escalates the panic, the dewy widescreen compositions of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and Nikolaj Egelund’s haunting low-key score.
Most of us will never know what it is like to be the victim of a lie that paints us as guilty in the eyes of our peers, friends and society, a tag so socially unacceptable that there is practically no way back to a normal existence. Watching The Hunt gives us an idea of the devastation. A flawed but gripping work and Mikklesen really is sensational.