CANNES – Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film “The Celebration” was a blistering piece about repressed secrets as a form of familial cancer, and it established him as an important voice in Danish film on part with Lars Von Trier. The films he’s made since then have not worked with the same focus, but he’s remained an interesting presence with the potential to put it all together again.
And now, with his new film “The Hunt,” he’s done exactly that.
It’s interesting that you could read this as an almost direct inversion of “the Celebration,” but I don’t think that was by design. Instead, Vinterberg began his process on this film by reading some disturbing reports on how children are so unclear on the notion of fantasy that they can lie with complete emotional conviction, and how adults, unclear on the way that works, can sometimes believe the unbelievable because of the source. We tend to paint children in our culture as these pristine moral figures, and when I hear that, it makes me wonder if the people who believe that have ever actually met any children. I love my kids, and I think they are well on their way to being good people. But left to their own devices, kids are basically wild animals and morality is something we teach them, not something that is inherent to them. They are driven by desire and need and powerful waves of emotion that they barely understand.
This lies at the heart of “The Hunt,” which is incredibly well-made and well-performed, and it is also absolutely infuriating. Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a newly-divorced man who is struggling to rebuild his life. Thankfully he’s surrounded by the friends who grew up with him, and he’s finally starting to find some sense of balance again. It’s hard because he’s still fighting with his ex-wife over custody of their teenage son, but he’s able to distract himself with hunting, a pastime that is crucial to the social fabric of his community, as well as his work at an elementary school. He’s a kindergarten teacher, and it’s obvious that the kids love him and vice-versa. Watching him in these early scenes as he plays with the kids, Mikkelsen is at his most tender and charming.
One little girl in particular, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), is smitten with Lucas in the way kids are often smitten. She’s an adorable little thing who basically looks like a miniature blonde Bjork and she gives a lovely, unaffected performance. Her father Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) is Lucas’s best friend, and Lucas is part of their family, constantly around and trusted completely. We see that Klara is a dreamy kid, prone to walking away from the house because she’s thinking about something else, and that her older brother is at an age where he’s a bad influence on her without even realizing it. Vinterberg and his co-writer Tobias Lindholm are careful to take time setting up dynamics and establishing the way the community as a whole works. It is all very sharply observed and drops some key puzzle pieces in a way that is very subtle, but also very precise.
As a result, when Klara gets her feelings hurt by Lucas in passing, he’s not even aware it happened, but Klara simmers on it until she ends up telling the principal of the school, Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas exposed himself. She barely has the vocabulary that can describe the incident, but observant viewers will see how the idea is planted, and she’s just clear enough to cause Grethe to panic. Grethe doesn’t want to believe it at first, but she can’t fathom that a five-year-old girl would have any way of even expressing an idea like this unless it really happened. While she tries to handle the situation carefully at first, her sense of moral outrage gets the better of her, and things get out of hand very very quickly. Lucas suddenly finds himself looking around at these people he’s known his whole life and seeing only strangers. He goes from being part of a community to being a monster almost overnight, caught in a nightmare he can’t understand. It is abundantly clear to us as the audience that Lucas is an innocent man, and Vinterberg doesn’t try to play to the situation for suspense. Instead, he’s more interested in the idea of how a thought can become a virus and how it spreads and, most importantly, the damage that it can do.
I cannot say enough good about the work that Mads Mikkelsen does here. He’s probably best known to audiences as Le Chiffre in “Casino Royale,” and he’s certainly good at playing villains. That’s why I’m not surprised to hear that he’s going to appear as a bad guy in “Thor 2.” He’s got one of those faces where he can play cruel with a mere gesture or expression, and that’s how Hollywood seems to be determined to use him. But he radiates both decency and pain in this film and expertly charts the emotional journey that Lucas takes. Vinterberg makes great use of him here and lets him play a wide range of emotions over the course of the film. Early on in the film, there’s another teacher at the school named Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) who is attracted to him, and she’s the aggressor in the relationship. Mikkelsen plays Lucas as a guy who has been deeply bruised by the recent changes in his life, and watching him start to reach out and start to reconnect with the best parts of himself is sort of heartbreaking. Even if the film didn’t introduce the accusations, it would be an engrossing character study.
But, man, when that accusation goes off like a hand grenade, the shrapnel it sends ripping through everyone involved is wrenching to behold. One critic I spoke to about the film couldn’t buy into the idea of a community this tightly-knit, turning on one of their own, but I think we’ve seen it happen in real life enough times now to know that this sort of thing can and does occur. Part of what makes it feel credible to me is that children are involved, and when that’s the case, rational behavior often goes right out the wind. I know that from my own perspective, if anyone ever victimized one of my kids, there is very little I would not do to make things right. I can’t promise I would handle things well, and even thinking about tit in the vaguest of terms makes me crazy angry. Even worse, if it was someone I trusted, someone I brought into their lives, that crushing sense of guilt would make it even worse.
I really love the way the film handles Lucas and his relationship with his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), and it’s great because Marcus is one of the few people who never loses faith in his father. The film makes some unusual and unexpected moves, and it does its best to play the entire situation honestly and without melodrama. There are scenes that I expected to see based on how the film sets up the situation, but Vinterberg doesn’t seem interested in the easy moves. Instead, it is austere and direct, and when he does finally let the emotion go, it’s devastating.
“The Hunt” may not have done my blood pressure any favors, but it is an impressive return to form for a strong voice in world cinema.