The Hunt (2013) – Thomas Vinterberg

The Hunt (2013) is as infuriating as it is moving, as much about anger as it is about compassion. There are people to blame but they act understandably, and if there is a culprit, it’s evil itself, which causes such distrust and paranoia that it tears apart friendships and ruins lives.

The movie stars Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, a lonely kindergarten teacher who, since his divorce, sees his son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm), less than he’d like to. Lucas has a group of friends he goes hunting with, including Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), whose daughter is in Lucas’ class. He enjoys his job and he even begins a relationship with a new teacher, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), which seems promising. Then Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), Theo’s daughter, unwilling unravels all that. Her older brother, jokingly and briefly (he’s only 10 or so himself), shows her some pornography on his iPad. He thinks the sizes and proportions and naughtiness of it are funny, and he turns it on his sister to shock her. She doesn’t understand. Later, annoyed with her teacher, she casually tells her principal that Lucas exposed himself to her. The principal, shocked and concerned, presses her for details and asks leading questions that, based slightly on the photos she’s been shown, she can answer. Lucas is fired and marked as a pervert and his life is turned upside down.

What makes the movie maddening is that it starts at the frustration of watching an innocent man wrongly accused but makes his accusers act, in a certain sense, responsibly, or at least with good intentions. Yes, it’s cruel to watch the town so quickly turn on Lucas, from his fellow teachers and his best friends to Nadja, but the abuse of trust and perversion of humanity that Lucas is accused of is so disgusting, just the mere suggestion of it can shade one’s perception. Klara doesn’t have any idea about the full implications her innocent lie is causing, but she can tell that what she’s said is changing things. She tries to walk back her story. She says she can’t remember. She made it up. Her parents and other adults tell her, which is true, that those types of memories can suppress themselves. They are acting out of the best interest for their child and their community, but it blinds them to the idea of the truth. This is particularly interesting considering that her parents reason for believing Klara in the first place is a parent’s steadfast belief that “my child doesn’t lie,” but now that she’s changing her story, they explain away the second statement instead of giving it the same consideration as the first.

This is right, protecting the child, especially against something that can ruin her life as much as the accusations and innuendos ruin Lucas’, but it doesn’t make watching the movie any easier when only we and Lucas know the truth and we are as powerless as he is to convince anyone of it. In that way, the movie is less of a Hitchcockian nightmare and more of a meditation on gut-reactions and the way we treat people. Lucas is arrested (soon other kids, perhaps envious of the attention Klara is getting, begin to say they were also abused), but the charges are dropped because the stories are inconsistent and include obvious fabrications. This doesn’t do much for Lucas’ stature in the community. He is beaten up and refused service from various shops and stores. This is sympathetic because we know Lucas is innocent, but The Hunt does an interesting thing in its presentation: By giving us measured looks at both the wrongfully accused and his accusers we are able to think a little bit about why everyone is behaving the way they do. Would it be acceptable for me to shut out someone I knew was a sexual abuser? Would I be right to do that? Would someone who is a sexual abuser, who is a human being like I am and makes mistakes like I do, deserve forgiveness or love? Perhaps from someone better than I. Because Lucas is innocent, the movie doesn’t try to answer these questions but because the suspicions are come from a place of protection, it does raise them and we are asked to grapple with them ourselves. This is not easy but it is worth doing.

Mikkelsen gives a powerful performance of a persecuted man who knows he’s no match for what he’s up against. It’s virtually impossible to convince someone of your innocence who has already convicted you; every action you take is evidence in the case that goes on in people’s minds. He has a stoicism about him that allows us to sympathize with him without being exploitative. The movie’s most traditionally satisfying sequence includes Lucas getting beaten up and tossed out of a grocery store in which he gets to keep his dignity and, just a little bit, righteously punish his punishers. The key performance, though, belongs to Wedderkopp as the little girl Klara, who has to express on her face a number of emotions that she (both her character and the actress herself) can’t possibly fully understand including fear, guilt and shame. She and Mikkelsen share two scenes together, one in the middle when Lucas’ life is falling apart, and one at the end in which Lucas, saintly, recognizes that she meant no harm to him, that are heartbreaking and beautiful.

This is a heartfelt movie, one that is absorbed more than enjoyed. It asks questions that few movies do, questions that are uncomfortable and don’t have easy answers. I hope that life doesn’t require an answer from me on these questions, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t consider them.

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