Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, as Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt exposes the brutality of blind prejudice faced with the spectre of child abuse.
Killing Me Softly by Mark Wilshin
Danish film seems to be suffering from a serious bout of issue drama. Alcoholism in Applaus, circling violence in In A Better World and now the spectre of paedophilia hits small town Denmark in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. They’re all beautifully humanist in their approach, and Jagten is no exception – surely Vinterberg’s most gripping film since Festen, grabbing the heart strings from the first hint of Mads Mikkelsen’s wrongful accusation and never letting go.
It’s a role made for Mikkelsen, with that pure child friendliness first seen in Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding and that easy approachability, determined to overcome problems untainted and unscathed. Like fellow countryman Lars Von Trier’s most recent films, Vinterberg’s Jagten is a long way from Dogme, but it’s entirely real in its approach to the delicate subject matter, as the daughter of Lucas’ best friend Theo wrongfully accuses the kindergarten teacher of inappropriate behaviour following his rebuff of her pre-teen crush – kissing him on the lips and gifting him a beaded heart. It’s a warning against the dangers of pornography if ever there was one, Klara borrowing terms overheard from her brother and his horny friends tittering over online erotica. But as The Hunt cuts to the chase, it’s both a heartwarming affirmation and a spine-chilling warning to untried liberal sensibilities.
It’s November, and a group of forty-something Danes are daring each other to jump into the ice-cool waters of a local lake. Warmed up by hot toddies and drinking songs, it’s the kind of raucous boisterousness likely to send shivers up the backbones of any onlooker, the guttural snorts of the Danish language making it somehow even more forbidding. And beyond the rumour-mill of child abuse, Jagten is a film about male friendship, fear of paedophilia the only thing that can break the buddy bond. The razor-sharp sacred thread that slices through the men’s imperturbable relationship is the word, out of the mouths of babes and almost an evangelical truth – both parent and teacher unable to believe that a child could lie about such a taboo, their faith in Klara’s word unswerving. Vinterberg’s script is superb, highlighting with delicate precision the inexperienced and ultimately bungling even-handedness of Grethe, the kindergarten’s headmistress who desperately tries to follow the process to the letter, before miring herself in one-sided faith and an all-too-quick emotional judgment.
Above all though, Jagten teaches us the importance of doubt – better painfully suspended over days, weeks and months than the rash acts of faith that can never be undone. Klara’s parents can’t believe their innocent daughter would lie, while other parents choose to protect their loved ones rather than risk solidarity with a potential abuser and criminal, friend or no. There’s a terrible momentum to the town turning on one of their own – children with great imaginations making up stories of Lucas’ non-existent basement, like a Pied Piper procession into the inconsequential realm of fantasy. Wanton obscurity surrounds the accusations, preventing a reasonable defence and ensuring a protective mollycoddling which only prolongs the agony further, even when Klara confesses to having made it up, her mother insistent “You may not want to remember it, but it did happen.”
Lucas and his son Marcus are left with little defence other than to plead with their friends and neighbours to believe in them. Of course, he’s guilty until proven innocent, but in Vinterberg’s film it’s less a question of criminal justice than the broken faith of friendship. His case is thrown out of court but prejudice prevails, and as Lucas clings bloodily to the rights he still has, Mads Mikkelsen shines, sublimely mastering the maelstrom of incrimination, loneliness and enforced silence. Perhaps most heartbreaking are his superhuman attempts to protect Klara’s innocence, and somehow their relationship survives, bruised but intact – Lucas’ final reel embrace, carrying the superstitious girl over the lines of a tessellated floor, a downright refusal, despite everything, to change his behaviour. Only Markus can vent the viewer’s frustration at the wilful containment of the truth, asking Klara directly why she lied and spitting in her face.
The film climaxes on Christmas Eve, the yuletide church service interrupted by Lucas’ heartwrenching groans and his refusal to accept Theo’s belief in his guilt, his ocular interrogation of his childhood friend desperately pleading his innocence. “Look into my eyes. Do you see anything? There’s nothing.” It’s a self-martyring excursion into the others’ gaze, with all the explosive finger-flicking to middle class mores of Festen. And as well as the Christian references to the man of sorrows, there’s also something darkly twentieth century about the town’s weak-willed collective consciousness and its rabid mob rule. Jagten‘s conclusion, with an unknown rifleman shooting but just missing Lucas’ head during a hunt, demonstrates the perpetual unease Lucas will always feel – he may be accepted back into the fold with hugs and kisses, but the damage to his reputation and self-confidence can never be restored.
The fear of the lynch mob and wrongful accusation is becoming almost commonplace in cinematic consciousness, with Steven Williford’s The Green and Vincent Garenq’s Présumé Coupable both dealing with the same subject. But what makes The Hunt special is Mikkelsen’s performance, ratcheting up the tension to breathless, throat-tightening heights. Jagten may at times revel in the fearful weakness of humankind, but in its revelations of a collective psychology that swiftly turns from victim to hunter, Thomas Vinterberg’s film is shockingly close to home. The weapon they wield might be blunt prejudice, but it’s lethal all the same.
The Hunt is released in the UK on 30th November 2012