A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. When Winston Churchill uttered these words, there was no social media, no apps, and no online trolling. And yet, he might have composed this truism with an eye on the twenty first century, such is the crystal-ball effect of what he said. Opinions are now deformed, not formed, and debates are anything but healthy. And one accusation is all it takes to demolish a reputation, the lynch crowd now online, poised for eternity to cast the first virtual stone.
But what of today’s small towns and villages, where families are united by generations of bonds so strong, they border on kinsmanship? Does a sane voice prevail at all? Director Thomas Vinterberg, in his 2012 Danish outing, Jagten (The Hunt) kamikazes any such hope, and makes a gut-wrenching movie that will rank forever as one of the best to be reviewed on this site. This is a must-watch feature, showcasing myriad layers of the rotten societal fabric that we’ve spun around us, draping a veil of righteousness and responsibility that’s as ramshackle as it is hollow.
Written by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg, The Hunt’s protagonist is Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), just about recovering from a divorce, and now on the verge getting his son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) to come and live with him. Lucas is a kindergarten teacher, much liked by all in his town and as he and his co-worker in the school, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) fall in love, life finally seems to be on the verge of an upswing for the mild-mannered Lucas. The director also focusses on the family of Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), Lucas’s best friends, and their children an elder son and a daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). Theo and Agnes are forever verbally lashing out at each other, and it is during one of these fights that, as Klara is waiting outside the house, waiting to be taken to school, the kindly Lucas offers to walk her.
It is this gesture that draws the six-year old Klara to Lucas, a combination of being smitten and finding a sympathetic father figure, and this results in her gifting him a heart and a kiss on the mouth, that Lucas rightly, swiftly and gently rebukes. This rejection causes the young child to react – not immediately, but later in the evening – in her own innocent and yet vengeful way, to accuse Lucas of exposing himself to her. And scenes earlier, the director shows you how a careless sibling can expose a child to a pornographic photo that makes a deep sexual imprint, and how children can draw on such memories to spin a fantastical story.
Director Vinterberg, from here on, creates scenes that evolve into gritty societal horror and terror, also mirroring how individuals and societies react to such accusations, beginning with the school authorities – in this case, Principal Grethe (Susse Wold), who chooses to believe the child, and without confronting Lucas directly about the purported incident, proceeds to take action against him. So much so, that in the parent-teacher meet that evening, she also informs all parents that one of her staff is a sexual predator, and that she’s had confirmation about one child being molested – and that there could be others, and then very helpfully, lists out the signs that all parents ought to look out for. On paper, Grethe plays it by the book, but onscreen, you realize how she’s simply fobbing off her responsibilities on everybody else, taking the easy path of casting the first stone, not mindful of its deadly ripples.
And each ripple is worse than its predecessor, as the parents step in, at one telling point, Agnes regurgitating in her own way what Grethe did – shushing Klara when she tells her mother that she didn’t mean what she said about Lucas – a microcosm of how the town behaves, a strange mix of naiveté and foibles as individuals – but collectively, sheer evil and deadly, feeding off the rumor to make it bigger, wilder, and finally, a point where other parents begin to report of “incidents” of their children with Lucas. The director doesn’t even bother to show or narrate what these incidents are, but he hits you with the sheer injustice of it all, of how mob psychology can make you sick to the core, but only when you’re on the outside, looking in.
As the movie progresses, it gets more visceral, punching your guts inside and out – sometimes you see the punches coming, other times, they simply knock your wind out without warning. The supermarket sequence has to be one of the most terrifying scenes you’ll ever see onscreen. Ever. More probably than not, you’ll watch it with your mouth open in horror, afraid to swallow, or you’ll shut your eyes, only to watch it from their corners, but watch it you will. As you will the church scene, where the ostracized Lucas, fortified with the amber liquid, walks into the midnight X’mas mass, and then delivers a whiplash of a pent up reaction.
The Hunt is a movie that’ll haunt you long after the images stop flickering on the screen, or as in my case, the original blu-ray disc stopped spinning in my player. And you have, apart from the director and the writers, cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen to thank for that – she (who also created brilliantly unforgettable frames for the chilling The Girl on the Train) and the director keep the shots unhurried, letting you get into each scene as a participant, occasionally zooming into the face of a character, as if you’re peering, only to zoom out again, and let you drink in the mise en scène. As the seasons change, the duo films the societal ecdysis, exposing the raw skin underneath, threatening to jump at the slightest reason. The background score by Nikolaj Egelund is superbly that, stepping in very occasionally, but when it does, it is to magnificent effect.
And of course, there’s the stellar cast – every actor is stunningly good, steeping in such a well-thought and marinated dimension to their characters. But, towering above them all is Mads Mikkelsen – you may thus far remember him as the hyphemaic Le Chiffre in the knock-your-socks off Casino Royale, but, after this movie, not any more. Mikkelsen’s performance is as harrowing as it is compelling, as gripping as it is haunting, and yet, shockingly understated. In his eyes, as the movie thwacks to a stunning, open-ended and possibly metaphorical end, you’ll see the meaning of what it is to be the hunted; in them, you’ll find epiphany that these eyes will be forever in the cross-hair of the deadliest hunter there is out there – our society.
The Hunt is rated R (Restricted – under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). There’s violence (but not gratuitous), sex, profanity, and a very adult theme.
Director Thomas Vinterberg Running Time 1h 55 min
Writers Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg
Stars Mads Mikkelsen, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Thomas Bo Larsen, Anne Louise Hassing, Susse Wold ,Annika Wedderkopp,
Watch the trailer of The Hunt here: