Like his 1998 feature The Celebration (Festen), which kicked off the Dogme 95 movement, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is a social horror movie. The ‘hunt’ in question is the systematic ostracization of a kindergarten teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), by the inhabitants of his small town after he’s accused of sexually abusing a little girl.
Unlike in The Celebration, which also centred around an accusation of sexual abuse, there’s no ambiguity as to whether Lucas is the ‘monster’ of this horror movie. He’s innocent, victim to a small lie spun by a lonely child who, like Lucas, is something of an ‘outsider’ in her inability to conform. Lucas is a lonely divorcee whose son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) lives with his mother. He’s voluntarily cautious in love instead of lusting after the chase like his male, mostly married, friends expect of a single man. They love him, but it’s clear that he’s seen as somehow different, weak for not being the manly half of the ideal Christian nuclear family that populates the town. The very charge who betrays Lucas tells him that her parents see him as a sad man all “alone in a big house.”
The monster here is a nebulous, viral thing—human guilt, aggression, fear, desperate conformism—jumping from person to person to turn them from friend to violent, cruel foe like the body-stealing alien from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). The mordant irony is that it all springs from a child, that symbol of human innocence and purity, untainted by sin. Indeed, accuser Klara (played with an uncanny sense of isolated quietude by Annika Wedderkop) is shot in the key scene where she spins the lie like the antagonist of an ‘evil child’ film like The Omen (1976) or Children of the Damned (1963), eerily cloaked in shadow while calmly composing a tale she doesn’t comprehend the power of, while the principal of the kindergarten looks on in growing horror.
But in casting Lucas as a Christ-figure tormented for making a community aware of their own guilt at unwittingly ostracizing both Klara and him, of not living up to their purported Christian principles, the film is more interested in how adults perpetuate evil, not children. Klara’s just an unwitting vector. The children, be it Lucas’ son Marcus, or Klara, or the many children who confess to being molested, are the victims here, and Lucas the scapegoat for that victimization. It’s the brutal, senseless circle of life. When Klara’s father and Lucas’ best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen in a nuanced, affecting performance) tells his daughter that “the world is full of evil,” but the evil goes away if they hold on to each other, it’s not so much a thesis statement for the film as it is a statement of hypocrisy. Ignorance is the evil here, and Theo only realizes how much he needs to hold on to love, to his floundering daughter and best friend, after he’s inadvertently helped scar the former and destroy the latter’s life for his town’s sins.
The adults are the willing carriers for the monstrosity that is unleashed in their town, drumming up a sense of righteous, collective justice instead of confronting even the possibility that Klara’s claim is a disturbing cry for attention. Klara is neglected by her parents, who fight and forget to walk her to school, and probably by her teachers and fellow students. It’s Lucas who shows her the kindness and attention she needs. Klara’s confusion at this affection from Lucas causes her to lie to the principal, Grethe (Susse Wold). It’s not surprising that Grethe takes the story seriously, as the very possibility of sexual abuse to a child deserves very thorough investigation. But the town’s pitchforks-and-all rallying into mass hysteria is almost satirical in its lack of considered thought or sensitivity. Denying the possibility that their self-contained society would produce an unhappy child who would make up such stories, they urge their children into believing a much more terrible alternative, willingly evoking a nightmare ‘outsider’ in Lucas just so they can punish him.
Which is not to say that the people in the town are demonized, exactly. In fact, some, like immigrant and fellow outsider Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), are shown as Lucas’ allies, supporting him despite the threat of censure. There is, then, some hope glimmering in the film’s dark cynicism. Ultimately, the townspeople who hound Lucas are all just human, struggling to deal with a dire situation, and failing utterly—their ‘evil’ is subtext. If anything, the film’s an indictment of denying human fallibility by writing idylls over savagery, of washing away the responsibility for sin by rejoicing at a man supposedly tortured and crucified for the evil of his entire race, idolized at the moment of his violent death for the worship of his followers. It’s no coincidence that the film takes place during winter and climaxes at midnight mass on Christmas night, leading to a coda that reminds of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) in its pointed ambiguity in the face of restored suburban social order. It’s as if Vinterberg wants to remind viewers of the horrific violence that every human moral system is predicated on. The film is an ironic Christian parable in the same way Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) is, with its evocation of the endemic, religiously charged injustice of witch-hunts.
Vinterberg juxtaposes the community’s Old Testament lynch-mob wrath with their meticulous observance of the trappings of middle-class affluence and close-knit, Christian society. After the town rejects him, the early scenes of Lucas’ jovial male bonding, drinking and singing with his friends, take on undertones of clannish savagery instead of warm camaraderie. Some of the film’s most disturbing (and blackly comic) moments feature the brutality of the ‘hunt’ writhing up into scenes of everyday mundanity—simple things like Lucas being told to never come back to a grocery store, or Marcus sitting alone in Theo’s house while everyone who accused his father engages in warm communal banter during a party, or a drunken Lucas tearing up at the sight of a kindergarten choir in church while the whole town congregation tries to ignore his presence there (a scene that borders on genius in its confluence of tragedy and bitter comedy, each equally effective).
Mikkelsen is currently best known as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s Hannibal TV series, but he’s veteran actor who’s displayed outstanding range playing diverse roles, from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy (1996-2005) to Hollywood blockbusters like Casino Royale (2006). Mikkelsen is riveting here as the fallen member of this little pastoral haven, playing kindness as a vulnerability that hardens into a dangerous despair as he tries to protect his son Marcus from the nonexistent sins of the father. It’s a great performance that’s well worth the price of admission, and bolstered by a generally excellent supporting cast.
The film benefits from Vinterberg’s abandonment of DIY Dogme aesthetics, with Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography providing a gorgeous contrast between warm and cold colours, the nestling of cozy pastoral homes bathed in amber light within the stark beauty of Scandinavian winter landscapes. Vinterberg and Christensen do well to find the beauty amid all the despair, giving us some haunting moments: Klara, the eye of the storm, dancing obliviously under the gentle flakes of first snow; Marcus using a lighter to observe the ghostly photos of his father as a young man; a frame of Lucas and Marcus, father and son, baptized in ethereal dawn light under what looks like a Christmas tree, right before an actual deer hunt. It’s all very thematically appropriate, and visually striking in an understated way.
The Hunt is not an easy movie to watch, but it doesn’t want to be. But while Vinterberg’s film isn’t exactly a cheery affair, there’s an unmistakable streak of black comedy in the proceedings. Those expecting a moody, awards-ready foreign drama would do well to expect nothing less than the emotional onslaught of a horror movie, and a very good one at that.
The Hunt opens July 19th in Toronto and Vancouver