Mads Mikkelsen gives an outstanding performance in Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, a piece stylistically so low key that it provokes all the stronger outrage in the viewer.
A divorced teacher and parent (Mikkelsen), lonely and now working at a nursery school after the local secondary closed, finds his life torn apart when a child accuses him of sexual misconduct. The child is also the daughter of his best friend (Thomas Bo Larson), and the soon the entire community has turned on him.
This is an extraordinarily powerful film, one where it is impossible not to become ever more incensed at the treatment of Mikkelsen’s character as events go from bad to worse. Vinterberg establishes from the start that the accusation is entirely false, ensuring the hows and whys of its occurrence are abundantly clear.
Vinterberg is particularly strong at highlighting what he considers to be the Catch-22 absurdity of the scenario; if the child later recants her accusation it must be on account of fear, not because it was actually a lie in the first place. And, as the only man in a teaching environment where only women are deemed acceptable (in the general mindset), he is virtually walking around with a target on his head.
The powerless position that Mikkelsen is placed in is perhaps the film’s strongest suit, but some of the contributing elements are overplayed. The head teacher is unable to deal with the situation with any degree of balance and goes out of her way to sentence the accused, disregarding all appropriate procedures. The social services interviewer prompts his witness in a highly unprofessional manner. All concerned repeat the mantra “Children don’t lie”, making them the most unlikely and oblivious parents and teachers. And the point at which we are told all the children have levelled accusations at Mikkelsen stretches realism to the point where subtext takes over. This over-egging slightly undermines the serious intent.
In addition, given his all-round vilification, some scenes (Mikkelsen’s altercation in the local supermarket) happen at a much later stage than one would expect. While plot and character points mentioned all serve to reinforce the wrongness of the situation, one can’t help but think that the result would have been even more chilling if his treatment had been more “by the book” and he was still condemned and ostracised.
As the celebrity child abuse scandal in the UK indicates, investigation is enough to confirm guilt in the minds of most people. Outside of the courtroom, it is the presumption of guilt that reins. Mikkelsen’s character will endure stigma for the rest of his life, no matter what the legal verdict is in his case. So there’s a sense that Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm (Borgen) have unnecessarily stacked the deck, amping up the ignorance and stupidity of those who exert power (so to ignite a stronger viewer response). It’s also evident that they were much clearer with their premise than where they wanted to take it; in the second half of the film, with the arrival of Mikkelsen’s son (a strong performance from Lasse Fogelstrøm), shifts the focus and eases up on the torment.
Nevertheless, there’s a great deal of power in the depiction of the small-town lynch mob mentality, always ready to find someone to hate with “justification”; an outlet for the all the ills and anger they nurse. While the subject is highly topical, this key theme suggests an intentional parallel to the likes of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (which presented the witches of Salem trials as an allegory for McCarthyite witch-hunts); the snowballing of a comment made out of rejection/anger increases to community-shattering proportions, making villains of friends at the turn of a dime.
The inability of Mikkelsen’s character to respond to accusations to his best advantage seems entirely plausible, but the ambiguous ending suggests a deeper weakness on his part (his willingness to remain with a group where trust can never be rekindled). From that perspective, the final suggestion of threat is not all together necessary (the point has already been made). Then, perhaps the subdued tone belies an intent on the part of the director to make his point as boldly as possible. After all, the title of the film, and the paralleling of Mikkelsen with the deer that are his prey, isn’t the subtlest. With a touch of restraint on Vinterberg’s part, The Hunt might have been a masterpiece, rather than merely a highly proficient one that masterfully pushes its audience’s buttons.