“They will come,” says Lucas when he leads his son out for his first hunt in the Danish countryside. He sends the boy off to find a spot, confident that with his example he will sight something at least and retrieve a pair of antlers at best. A patient hunter will always find his prey. It’s a lesson that Lucas, as played by Mads Mikkelsen, probably never thought to apply to life among people, but then again, he was never looking for game downtown. Not so, thinks his fellow townsfolk in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, as they get swept up in accusations against Lucas of child molestation which devastate his life and destroy his standing in the community. Once he’s branded a pedophile, Vinterberg hones in on the horror of living with such a stigma when one is helpless to fight the charge.
There’s no spoiling the fact that Lucas isn’t a pedophile and has never molested a child. This isn’t some Hollywood movie that wears winking ambiguity as a badge of cleverness. The task of applying ambiguity to the case is left entirely up to the movie’s townspeople. Whereas audiences may like to debate the truth of onscreen depictions, they now get to watch their fun taken up by a tortured populace for much graver, compulsive reasons. Vinterberg and fellow screenwriter Tobias Lindholm want to explore an honest story of a small community in upheaval, and though Lucas’ bitter separation from his wife at the beginning of the film may come across as too obvious a character flaw, put in place just to emphasize that he isn’t being made out to be an innocent martyr, they have crafted a quiet, non-manipulatively introspective movie.
The chaos begins when Klara, one of Lucas’ kindergarteners and the daughter of his friend, develops a crush on him and makes up an indecent story when Lucas admonishes her for kissing him. From here the rumor spreads like a cancer, and because sacrificing an adult is always more acceptable than sacrificing a child, Klara is given the benefit of the doubt. The rest of the story follows the fallout of over-vigilance and miscommunication in a situation that lets people envision whatever they want. The characters onscreen are rendered incapable of rational thought, having been driven by fear and disgust to avoid the prevalent issue almost entirely. As agonizing as it is, they would rather believe a child’s vague, shifting accusations of abuse rather than discuss the particulars of the case as mature adults. Taboos make maniacs of everyone, especially those who hold them as taboo. And so the adults skirt around the problem, deploying euphemistic speech and exaggeration to guard their mental barriers, approaching the topic as delicately as an heiress would scoop her Chihuahua’s poop. Lucas himself is maddeningly unhelpful, a reticent man paralyzed by the utter preposterousness of it all. The impression Mikkelson leaves is that Lucas habitually doesn’t stick up for himself, a trait that’s been magnified by his exercising of extreme reserve in dealing with an ugly divorce. Already torn from his wife, struggling to raise his son, and spinning his wheels playing assistant to a kindergarten class, it’s understandable that he should succumb to fatigue at some point. Lucas’ reluctance to speak is also at least partially a result of his boss’ refusal to state the accusation specifically or indicate anything about the source of the trouble. She claims to be following protocol, but her nervousness gives away her inability to handle the situation even-handedly. The audience is left in the uncomfortable position of possessing all the knowledge necessary to clear up the misunderstanding before it becomes a full blown scandal, so it’s doubly infuriating when Lucas won’t take a guess at the problem’s root.
Once the cat is out of the bag, or rather the cats, given that the other children are pressured into slandering Lucas, the story takes the shape of a siege, and Lucas confronts the true psychological horror of his predicament. The movie’s title may be an obvious reference to Lucas’ situation, but it’s more difficult to see Lucas’ role in the hunt. He isn’t the prey after all, but rather the hunter as imagined by a terrified town craving an evil so clear cut that it can lash out with righteous indignation. The most civil hunter is his own bait, and true to every other bureaucracy in times of distress, the town has found someone to persecute. With a villain in hand, the townsfolk now paint themselves in false light. It takes a crime as unthinkable as child molestation to make people forget their own frailty. When Lucas or his son Marcus encounter prejudice from their former friends and neighbors, it’s the neighbors who feel awkward: frumpily clothed, bedraggledly bearded, out of shape citizens who exert their hate with pinpoint precision upon their new targets. They aren’t heroes or moral guardians, but ordinary, confused people. Vinterberg shows not a single shot of a courtroom. The tension and the terror are outside, where the citizens’ newfound moral purity has turned them into monsters. Their refusal to accept any nuance of the official story has led them to become a masochistic breed of hunter, goading their target to strike first. As their prey, the best that can be said for Lucas is that he knows to stay just outside of range.
Mikkelsen, always likable despite his many sinister roles, is excellent as the caged Lucas, his granite face absorbing every new challenge with utmost dignity, so careful in his actions that he appears almost motionless. Lasse Fogelstrom also carries a heavy burden as Marcus, whose guilt by association as his supportive son is a despicable thing to see. With a cast of dependably scraggly small town Danes slowly shutting themselves off from Lucas, Vinterberg has crafted a prudently restrained drama that relies on gloriously colorful exterior shots to lend any sort of beauty to the setting. This makes for an excellent, slightly more verite companion piece to Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon, that also highlights the uneasy alchemy of a (in this case, convicted) sex offender inhabiting a spiteful community. The Hunt can’t be said to have a happy ending. Whether Lucas is found innocent or guilty by law in the movie I won’t say, but Vinterberg makes it clear that once Lucas’ tormentors have armed themselves with the moral upper hand, they’re not willing to let it go, and primal hatred can’t be quelled by any court decision.