Mads Mikkelsen, who’s become something of an international star recently even as we struggle to correctly pronounce his first name (it’s Mass, apparently), won best-actor honours last year at Cannes for his performance here as a small-town Danish daycare/kindergarten worker accused of sexually molesting a five-year-old girl under his care.
Too bad he had to win it for a not especially good film. While The Hunt strives mightily to provoke outrage, get the blood boiling, pluck the heartstrings and open the tear ducts, it never quite succeeds – a function of a narrative whose failures of credibility, finally, prevent a viewer from wholeheartedly embracing what director Thomas Vinterberg wants us to feel.
Sometimes a movie with a strong emotional agenda fails to realize its ambitions because the action and/or the characters are too ambiguous. The Hunt, however, suffers from a lack of ambiguity. Mikkelsen’s Lucas is presented as a paragon of virtue, community uplift and manly probity at the film’s start and he pretty much maintains that stature for the rest of The Hunt’s 111 minutes. We know, too, again virtually from the get-go, that when young Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), speaking to the daycare’s principal (Susse Wold), alleges misconduct by Lucas – a man her father (Thomas Bo Larsen) claims as his best friend – she’s lying; a situation she only worsens the more she responds to the leading questions of her adult interrogators.
From there, The Hunt’s basically a banal roll out of the ways the poisons of innuendo and gossip, bad faith and hysteria can move through a tight-knit community and turn a favourite son into a pariah. Pretty it is not – there’s an especially violent confrontation scene in a grocery store – but then didn’t Gene Pitney tell us more than a half-century ago that “it isn’t very pretty/What a town without pity can do”? Same with Shirley Jackson in The Lottery, yes?
However, last time I looked, Denmark had most of the trappings of a modern liberal democracy: an independent judiciary, lawyers, police, a free press, human rights organizations, advocacy groups. Yet you’ll be hard-pressed to find much evidence of them in The Hunt, even when circumstances (and logic) say they should be there, even ineffectually so. Vinterberg, instead, rigs his film to give largely unrestricted rein to the forces of vigilantism and tribalism, as if to remind us that such shibboleths as “behold how thin the veneer of civilization,” and “how quick man is to judge and find a scapegoat” still pertain. As a result, The Hunt’s inexorability feels derived more from thematic or ideological concerns than any organic necessity.
At the same time, aided by a uniformly excellent cast (Mikkelsen as star is really just first among equals) and superior cinematography (by Charlotte Bruus Christensen), Vinterberg’s naturalistic aesthetic expertly captures the pleasures and stresses, textures, rituals and rites of passage of Danish society, or at least this particular society. The film also boasts the cutest cinematic canine since the eponymous Skye Terrier appeared in Walt Disney’s Greyfriars Bobby. It’s a cocker spaniel, crossed with who knows what, that Lucas calls Fanny. Try not to get too attached to the dog, though. Have I mentioned that a town without pity isn’t very pretty?