Mob mentality, the relativity of truth, loss of innocence and the dangers of vigilantism are all weighty themes on display in Thomas Vinterberg’s agonizing drama The Hunt. The director has never taken on easy subjects, from the pedophilia-themed The Celebration to the brutal family drama Submarino, but The Hunt may be his most harsh and devastating work yet.
The film centers on Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten teacher in a small Danish community who has recently been through a bitter divorce and custody battle. When one of his pupils, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), wrongly accuses him of sexual misconduct, Lucas soon finds the town he thought he knew turning against him. As the lie spreads and becomes accepted as truth, despite his protests, everything Lucas values is thrown into jeopardy, from his friendships to his relationship with his son to his very life.
What sets The Hunt apart from other dramas that pick away at societal fabrics is its willingness to see its story through. The film doesn’t ask easy questions, and it poses suitably complex answers. In one scene, when Lucas locks eyes with Theo (Thomas Bo Larson), the father of the girl he supposedly abused, a man previously his closest friend, there’s no clear good guy. Lucas is valiantly struggling to defend his innocence, while the girl’s father is facing down someone he increasingly believes could be capable of heinous acts.
A movie as character-driven as The Hunt would be nothing without great performances, and Mikkelsen rises to the challenge. Inflecting every line of dialogue with excruciating pain, frustration and confusion, he creates a brilliantly flawed protagonist. Lucas is an Everyman with many shortcomings, but his reaction to social alienation is as heartbreaking to watch as it is truthful. With his inscrutable features and slight build, Mikkelsen brings a certain physicality to the role that quickly paints Lucas as a loner, stiff in posture and manner. There’s a lot brewing under the surface, and Mikkelsen captures that too, so much so that watching the actor staring past the screen never gets boring, because you can just about see all the wheels turning. Initially, his passive reaction to the accusations are puzzling and infuriating, but as the film progresses, Mikkelsen lets us inside Lucas and allows us to discover the reasons for his behavior. I won’t say any more, but Mikkelsen’s is an electrifying, awards-worthy performance.
The supporting cast is also terrific. Larson is extremely convincing as the desperate and conflicted Theo, always remaining recognizably human even as the rest of the village turns savage. As Lucas’s accuser, Wedderkropp is nothing short of stunning. For such a young actress, she has tremendous range and undeniable talent. Finally, Susse Wold, playing Lucas’s colleague at the kindergarten who first disseminates word of Lucas’s misconduct, is utterly chilling as a vicious rumor-monger who becomes so convinced of Lucas’s guilt without a shred of evidence that she quickly builds a movement against him.
Part of what makes the movie so deeply disturbing is how believable it is. The Hunt‘s brilliantly constructed script, written by Vinterberg and A Hijacking writer-director Tobias Lindholm, doesn’t peddle in one-dimensional characters or plot contrivances. From the first accusation to Lucas’s ultimate ostracism from the rest of the town, every terrible event feels like a natural progression of the previous one. Nothing’s forced, and nothing’s ever less than frighteningly plausible. The dialogue, too, feels realistic – “The world is full of evil, but if we hold onto each other, it goes away,” says one character in a late scene, a reasonable thing to say to comfort a small child that takes on a far more disquieting significance given the film’s subject matter.
The Hunt starts out slow, introducing a peaceful small-town setting but all the while quietly building a sinister tension that pervades every frame. At first, the sense of impending doom is dismissible, but the genius of Vinterberg’s gentle direction and the film’s perfectly paced script is that the dread creeps over you, slowly but surely, until you feel as petrified and powerless as the film’s protagonist.
Vinterberg takes a documentary-style approach to directing, filming Lucas’s ordeal with an almost clinical detachment. Close-ups on the actors’ faces allow the film to succeed as a terrific showcase for emotive performances, but Vinterberg takes great care not to insert himself into the story. In some sense, it’s a shame that he doesn’t take a stance, but the powerful purpose of his objectivity is to force viewers to decide what to take away from the film. And there’s a lot. Mixed in with tricky themes about community and the true face of evil are intriguing ideas about the Danish culture of hunting (and, in that same vein, the relationship between the hunter and the hunted) and the baseless self-hatred Lucas develops as a result of his ostracism.
By the time The Hunt arrived at its heartbreaking, thought-provoking conclusion, I was completely drained. This is a film that deserves to be seen, as hard as it is to watch. A masterful script, gripping direction and Mikkelsen’s powerful turn come together to create a nerve-shattering drama unlike any other I’ve seen this year.
A sublime performance from Mads Mikkelsen is just one facet of a brilliant and unnerving drama that provides brutal, thought-provoking answers to the tough questions it asks.