Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg.
Written by: Tobias Lindholm & Thomas Vinterberg.
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen (Lucas), Thomas Bo Larsen (Theo), Annika Wedderkopp (Klara), Lasse Fogelstrøm (Marcus), Susse Wold (Grethe), Anne Louise Hassing (Agnes), Lars Ranthe (Bruun), Alexandra Rapaport (Nadja), Ole Dupont (Godsejer / Advokat).
I highly doubt when Thomas Vinterberg made his breakthrough film, The Celebration (1998) that he realized what an impact the film would have. The Celebration is undeniably one of the most important films of the 1990s – if for no other reason, it pretty much started the digital age. Pretty soon, American indie filmmakers were copying what this Danish director had done, loving the freedom that digital cameras afforded them, even if the look was grimier than they wanted. And then George Lucas got involved, and everything changed. If it hadn’t have been Vinterberg, it would have been someone else, but back in 1998, The Celebration felt like the introduction to one of the future greats of European Art House filmmaking. But Vinterberg was never really able to follow it up with another film that felt so fresh and original as The Celebration.
While his latest film, The Hunt, is still not as good as The Celebration was, it is his best film since then. The film even shares some similarities with The Celebration – as both are about child abuse, and corruption in Danish society (although both, it seems to me, are fairly universal). The Hunt isn’t as daringly original as The Celebration. But it is Vinterberg’s most accomplished, confident film since he made his breakthrough.
The Hunt stars Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, who was once a high school teacher in his small town, until that school closed. With nowhere else to go, he becomes one of the people working in a kindergarten class. He loves the kids – and the kids love him. One girl in particular, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) takes a shine to him. Klara is a shy girl, with an active imagination, who often wanders away from home and becomes lost – she is so transfixed making sure she doesn’t step on any of the lines on the sidewalk, that she doesn’t watch where she’s going. Lucas often comes across her, and walks her home – and sometimes, when her parents are fighting, walks her to school. But Klara reads something more into her friendship with Lucas – and when she gives him a heart she makes in art, he tells her that she should give it to one of the boys in class. And when she kisses him on the lips, he tells her that’s only for mommy’s and daddy’s. In short, Lucas does nothing wrong – and lets Klara down gently. But for Klara, this stings. Using language she has learned from her teenage brother, she tells the kindergarten teacher about Lucas’ “stiff rod”. And from there, as you can imagine, things spiral out of control. Pretty soon the police are called, and many other kids are telling the same story Klara is. And Lucas becomes a social pariah. Even when Klara tries to tell people she just said some “silly” things, no one cares to listen.
The Hunt is not a perfect film. For one thing, I would have preferred a little more complexity to it – like, for instance, not knowing if Lucas was innocent right from the start. It’s too easy to make Lucas a martyr when we all know he has done nothing wrong. For another, Vinterberg piles on the wrongs done to Lucas a little too heavily – a physical confrontation in a grocery store for instance just rings false. And Vinterberg would have been better served by ending his movie a few scenes earlier than he does – the looks on the faces of those around Lucas would have been a better ending point than the overt action that eventually does bring the movie to a close.
But even when The Hunt takes things a little too far, it is constantly grounded by the great performance by Mikkselsen. Mikkelsen, still best known in North America as the Bond villain who cries blood in Casino Royale, has been an excellent actor for years – and here he gets one of his best roles. He plays a man who knows he is innocent – and tries to maintain his dignity, even as he is being dragged through the mud. But gradually, he starts to unravel , to come unglued and start breaking down. He is an innocent man wrongly accused – Hitchcock’s favorite story – except this time, it doesn’t matter if he proves his innocence or not. Everyone will always think him guilty. He grounds the movie in a believable reality, even when Vinterberg lays things on too thick.
The Hunt shows that Vinterberg is comfortable with a more conventional narrative than The Celebration – or really with many of his subsequent films. It shows him as a confident filmmaker working in a classically structured narrative. Now it’s time for Vinterberg to push himself farther. It’s not too late for him to live up to the promise of The Celebration.