Pedophilia is a taboo subject evoked constantly by filmmakers, storytellers, journalists, and parents for the instant and understandable reaction of fear and disgust it provokes. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg used it in his searing Dogme-launching debut quite effectively as a means of watching a family disintegrate for dark comedy and harsh drama. Now over a decade later he’s returned to the subject in The Hunt, only to tackle it from a drastically different perspective.
His movie explores the hysteria surrounding the subject and how it can quickly lead to false judgment and pitch-fork wielding mob justice towards someone innocent accused of the crime. It’s a fascinating tale to tell in a culture that has made To Catch a Predator a syndication hit to rival Seinfeld. Obviously, the film in no way condones that pedophilia, but it does raise an interesting question about whether or not any crime should have such a level of acceptable hatred surrounding it, particularly before anyone accused has a chance to prove their innocence.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a lonely kindergarten teacher in a small Danish community. It’s the sort of town where everyone knows each other since there are less residents than the cast of some primetime dramas. Over the years, Lucas has a formed a close relationship with one of his students Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), as he’s friends with her neglectful parents and often looks after her when they’re not around or engaging in their latest screaming match. Klara becomes confused with their close relationship as children often do and is embarrassed when Lucas scolds her for kissing her. With a talent for telling elaborate lies and a recent first glimpse at pornography on her brother’s iPad, an embittered Klara vaguely tells her principal that some naughty below the belt activity went on between herself and her teacher. Soon experts are brought in and a tale of abuse is coaxed out of the girl who doesn’t want to be caught in a lie. Then other students are unintentionally pulled into the lie as well, and Lucas becomes the most hated person in the community. He’s beaten, charged, and has his family threatened before anyone gets to hear his side of the story. Obviously, there’s very little sympathy to go around for Lucas after the accusations, and watching him struggle to get by until the truth comes out is undeniably frightening.
As always, Vinterberg shoots in a very loose, improvisational manner through handheld cameras that creates a sense of immediate realism. However, this time those tossed off techniques disguise a carefully structured screenplay. All of the events are carefully laid out to credibly hang Lucas without any malicious intent. None of the teachers and counselors that talk Klara through her confession are attempting to lead her. It just happens for the same reason that everyone wants to lynch Lucas after the stories come out: fear.
The film explores one of those dark secrets that everyone knows exists yet tries to ignore. Sex offenders are out there and the immediate inclination is to want to stop them immediately, violently if necessary. It’s hard to not jump on that bandwagon out of human decency, but at the same time you can’t always trust the word of an imaginative child and abused children aren’t exactly forthcoming with confessions. So when should these accusations be taken seriously and at what point should an adult accused of harming a child be treated as if they did commit the crime? These aren’t easy questions and thankfully Vinterberg is too smart a filmmaker to offer pat, easy answers. He simply let’s the story play out as honestly and naturalistically as possible to let the audience work out the rest. There are no heartfely monologues or even a pleasant thesis. The closest thing to closure comes in a metaphor heavy art house wrap up that suggests continuing depression and fear.
At the center of it all is Mikkelsen in a stunning performance that won him that Best Actor statue at Cannes last year and surely would have scored him a few other nominations if The Hunt got an awards season release. Never have his sunken eyes seemed in more pain, and despite the gamut of emotions he runs through, there’s not a second of hammy acting. He fully embodies the character, and since Stateside audiences will only know him has a Bond villain or a cannibal it lends the role unintentional stunt casting that further challenges the audiences sympathies.
Though Mads towers above the rest, the entire cast are equally open and heartfelt, particularly the impossibly young Annika Wedderkopp who nails a complex role far above the demands of typical cutesy kid acting. It is certainly an actor’s movie and Vinterberg wisely stands back far enough as a filmmaker to let his cast command the screen as they should. But it’s the moral ambiguity of the screenplay that will stick with viewers long after the credits roll. The Hunt explores tricky subject matter with such a unique perspective and insight that it’s sure to haunt your mind longer than any horror movie. The only trouble is that you’ll never find a comfortable way to settle your concerns.