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Journey back in time to last week…Monday, to be exact. On that particular day, my Oscar viewing continued with the first of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees that I’ve been able to see: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt.

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Imagine being accused of a crime that you know you didn’t commit. Regardless of how much you protest, how much evidence you amass in your favor, the tide of public opinion continues to turn against you. Former friends shun you or, worse, spit on you. Loved ones doubt you. You’re not even able to shop at the local grocery store, since they don’t even want your money. Everywhere you turn, there is nothing but obscenity, hatred and fear: you have become, truly, an island unto yourself. This Kafkaesque scenario would be terrifying enough under the best of circumstances. Now: imagine that you’re a beloved elementary school teacher and the crime you have been falsely accused of is child abuse. This bleak, terrifying and soul-crushing experience forms the crux of Vinterberg’s powerful, solemn The Hunt.

Lucas (the always amazing Mads Mikkelsen, never better) is a well-liked elementary school teacher still trying to put the pieces together after a particularly acrimonious divorce and custody battle. He is absolutely devoted to his students, the kind of teacher that makes Mr. Holland look like a raging bully. Lucas is best friends with seemingly every male in town, hanging around with best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) whenever possible. Lucas has just began to date one of his co-workers, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), and has finally received word that his son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), will be able to stay with him, signalling a thawing, of sorts, in the battle with his ex-wife. Lucas is adored by every student in the school, none more so than Theo’s angelic little daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp).

Klara, unfortunately, is the definition of a troubled child. Her parent are constantly fighting, her older brothers have gotten into the disturbing habit of showing her internet porn and she’s looking for affection from whomever will pay attention to her. The object of her affection, unfortunately, becomes Lucas. When he admonishes the girl after she plants an illicit kiss on his lips, Klara becomes sullen and upset. Later on, she tells the school’s administrator Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas has exposed himself to her, confusing the porn that she has seen with reality. Grethe jumps on the story and, in an effort to move as quickly as possible, does little to no fact-checking. In no time at all, the entire town has turned against Lucas: he’s let go from his job, the local grocery store refuses to sell to him and his friends, led by Theo, have turned violently against him. No matter how much Lucas protests, no one will believe him. Even worse: the other students are now beginning to say that Lucas molested them, as well, even if their shared story prominently mentions a non-existent basement. It’s up to a small, dedicated group of relatives and friends to try and clear Lucas’ name but will they succeed? And will there be anything left of Lucas or his reputation if they do?

Foreign-film fans might recognize writer/director Vinterberg as one-half of the team responsible for bringing the concepts of Dogme 95 to the world at large. Along with famed agitator and all-around genius Lars von Trier, Vinterberg came up with Dogme 95 as a reaction against the spiraling budgets and endless special effects extravaganzas of films in the 1990s. The first “official” Dogme 95 film was actually Vinterberg’s The Celebration, which The Hunt resembles in many ways. There’s also quite a bit of von Trier’s dour influence to be found here, whether it be in the icy, sterile environments or the escalating piles of misery heaped onto the lead character. And make no mistake about it: there is plenty of misery to go around here.

Like von Trier, Vinterberg examines the many, many forces that conspire to utterly crush and destroy a person’s humanity and the capricious way in which luck and fate can make this possible. The entire source of Lucas’ downfall comes from one single lie, a lie that he had nothing to do with and did nothing to contribute to. This stands in sharp contrast to traditional notions of tragedy, where a character’s fatal flaw always contributes to their inevitable downfall. In this case, Lucas’ biggest sin seems to be that he genuinely likes and cares for the children. His caring is twisted into something ugly but it’s completely illusory: never once is the audience made to believe that Lucas is guilty in any way, shape or form. This fundamental understanding of his innocence, on behalf of the audience, stands in sharp contrast to his neighbor’s absolute belief in his guilt, sans any proof. As Theo says, he knows that his daughter would never lie, about anything, so Lucas has to be guilty, regardless of any proof.

It’s a maddening concept but one that’s been played out too many times in the media to be discounted as simply a fictional construct. Just as any claim of abuse must be thoroughly investigated, so, too, must that investigation be through, fair and clear-headed. The violent persecution of an individual based on nothing but innuendo and hearsay is, as the film makes abundantly clear, nothing short of a witchhunt (perhaps “the hunt” of the title, despite the prominence of deer-hunting in the story).

The Hunt is a sober, unrelenting and unflinching film, although there are just enough moments of levity and joy to make the surrounding darkness and misery hit that much harder. The film actually begins with its most joyous sequence, a bit where Lucas and his friends skinny-dip in a icy lake, only for Lucas to end up saving one of the others from drowning. It’s a great bit of shorthand that quickly and efficiently establishes the characters and their relationships. This scene stands in sharp contrast with the film’s emotional centerpiece, the Christmas Eve service.

In a film that contains many striking scenes and images, the Christmas Eve church service still manages to stand head-and-shoulders above the others. At the nadir of his experience and ostracized from everyone in the town, Lucas decides to make his stand at the church. The entire town is gathered there, bathed in the beautiful warm glow of lights, candles and holy righteousness. Lucas enters the church and makes his way to the very front, past every disapproving glare and silent reproach, past the downcast, baleful glances of Theo and his family. As he sings the hymn, we get a close-up of Mikkelsen’s face and the effect is like getting kicked repeatedly in the stomach: we see the sorrow, the pain and the fear in Lucas’ eyes, feel them through the tears that stream down his face. We also, however, get a front-seat to the anger and hatred that have been simmering in him, emotions brought to a full-boil as Lucas finally directs his rage at the town, in general, and Theo, in particular. It’s an amazing scene, one of those moments that is simultaneously too painful to watch and too incredible to look away from. In any other hands, whether a different director or a lesser actor, the scene may have stumbled into the realm of the histrionic. As it is, however, it’s a perfectly brittle, lacerating moment, easily the equal of anything in von Trier’s films.

In many ways, The Hunt can be seen as a sort of Dogme 95 film, although the cinematography is genuinely gorgeous and much better than one usually sees in Dogme films. The raw emotions, simple structure and naturalistic lighting, however, are all elements that are readily associated with the Danish film movement. As with other Dogme films, the acting is of primary importance and The Hunt does not disappoint on that angle. Were there any justice, Mikkelsen would be a lock for whatever the Danish equivalent of the Best Actor award would be: he’s one of the only actors I’ve ever seen who can be simultaneously chilly and vulnerable. If Ingmar Bergman were still around, I’m pretty sure that Mikkelsen would be his muse. There’s one moment, where Lucas returns to the grocery store that turned him away, that serves as a minor bright spot of badassery in an otherwise grim landscape: after being beaten and humiliated by the butcher and several bag-boys earlier, Lucas returns to collect and pay for his groceries, mustering as much dignity as he can. When he’s confronted by the butcher, Lucas proceeds to lay the kind of righteous ass-whupping upon the guy that made me stand and pump my fist in the air: it’s a small victory but it’s his victory, dammit, and ours, by default.

In the end, The Hunt is an exceptional film, the kind of quiet, powerful art that sinks its claws into you and refuses to let go. There are no easy answers, here, and no handy villains. Despite the destructive power of her lie, it’s impossible to hate Klara: she’s just as much a victim as Lucas, ultimately. Likewise, we cannot hate Theo: he’s only making the same terrible decision that any parent in a similar situation would need to make. What, then, can we blame for Lucas’ turmoil? As vague as it may seem, Vinterberg seems to have a clear target in mind: if you want to blame anything for what happened to Lucas, blame the misery of humanity. It’s a heart-breaking revelation but it’s the closest we’ll get to absolute truth in The Hunt.

 

 

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