Thomas Vinterberg’s harrowing drama serves as a companion piece of sorts to the documentaries concerning the travails of the West Memphis Three. Whereas the non-fiction work of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (The Paradise Lost trilogy) and Amy Berg (West of Memphis) examined how deep-seated prejudice could spawn a protracted miscarriage of justice, Vinterberg’s nerve-fraying character study investigates the lingering ramifications of rash actions and rushes to judgement.
But first, it sets a scene not all that unlike West Memphis, Arkansas. The Hunt unfolds in a small, rural community where the jocular men view each other as brothers and the children wander the streets unattended, their safety taken for granted. Our introduction to Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) comes as he’s rescuing a burly, naked friend from a frigid lake. Next, the kindergarten teacher is seen wiping the bottom of one of his charges who’s just used the toilet. Both scenes illustrate Lucas’ unflappability and his willingness to accept any burden that’s presented. As we learn, the fates haven’t taken fondly to him and he’s had to shoulder more than his fair share.
Consequently, despite having known the man for only a few minutes, we’re heartened when Lucas’ fortunes seem to change for the better. We do this despite knowing that Vinterberg (who’s in his best form since The Celebration) is as skillful a manipulator as his countryman and cohort Lars von Trier. Both men are obviously proponents of the adage “your protagonist is the character who suffers the most.” Rest assured, Lucas will suffer mightily because of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a little girl who has a crush on him. When he gently scolds her for being overly affectionate, she responds by intimating to another teacher that Lucas exposed himself. What follows is a witch-hunt that Denmark hasn’t seen the likes of since the reign of Christian IV.
Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking) have no interest in detailing the legalities at play here. Instead, they’re fascinated with the way in which conservative communities are willing to close ranks at the slightest provocation. Furthermore, they fully endorse Nick Cave’s theory that “People Just Ain’t No Good.” (“It ain’t that in their hearts they’re bad/They’d stick by you if they could/But that’s just bullshit/People just ain’t no good.”) In many respects, this is a riveting hostage drama, with Lucas held captive by public opinion. The film’s scathing indictment of human nature asserts that it’s easier for people to accept the unthinkable than it is for them to find the resolve to defy the consensus. And once such callousness takes root, barbarism is fast to flourish.
In terms of story structure, The Hunt favors the Stations of the Cross over Syd Field, running Lucas through a gauntlet of psychological and physical trials. As scorn and abuse rain down on the pariah he’s embodying, Mikkelsen’s performance proves every bit as physically involved as his turn in the ultra-violent Valhalla Rising. Here, his athletic frame serves defensive purposes, allowing him to absorb whatever’s thrown at him and still maintain an air of resilience. All of which serves to make the scene in which his shoulders finally slump and his head bows all the more devastating.
Brilliantly written and masterfully staged, the climax arrives with the entire town gathered in a warmly lit church on Christmas Eve. As Vinterberg allows the scene to methodically unfold, we watch Mikkelsen’s stony countenance become consumed with indignation. Even within the walls of an institution that hinges on blind faith, there’s not a single person who will give him the benefit of the doubt. The rank hypocrisy glimpsed in the sequence is galling. And yet, Vinterberg never allows his evident disdain for such flock mentalities to affect his steady directorial hand.
Fittingly for a film that deals with actions that can’t be undone, The Hunt leaves you with a sickening feeling that’s almost impossible to shake.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writer: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm
Release Date: July 12, 2013