Had 2012 allowed me to see The Hunt, the new film by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg who was one of the first to use digital cameras and to effectively help change cinema forever, it would’ve risen up the ranks of my top ten instantaneously. The Hunt only secured modest U.S. distribution this past summer, and was unseen by most. How critics place indie and/or foreign dramas into top ten lists has become a silly sort of controversy, with many simply including them in the year in which they’re submitted for an Oscar, as was the case with last year’s excellent nightmarish thriller Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The Hunt is a similar case, not only because of the same confusion around the “real” year of release, but because it’s cut from the pitch-black cloth as Anatolia. They both suffer a grim, threatening atmosphere with tainted murky (but still beautiful) cinematography and large, sparse spaces of asphyxiating emptiness. But, unlike Anatolia, there was no threatening figure peering violently at the camera, inspiring chilling tension that won the Turkish film its international applause. There was no mystery. There was no ghastly murder with which to terrify audiences. Why would there be? To really scare an audience, all you need is basic human nature.
The plot follows Lucas, a nursery teacher portrayed by Danish star Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Pusher Trilogy), who gained significant notice playing a shockingly good Hannibal Lector in NBC’s equally shockingly good series Hannibal. Lucas becomes under fire when a disillusioned little girl falsely accuses him of sexual molestation and pedophilia without having a shred of understanding of the consequences. There are many. Mads shows unprecedented range here, and will hopefully defy being typecast in the future. Unlike his usually chilling roles, here he’s warm and inviting, the kind of guy you suppose knocking back a beer with. The emotional turmoil he suffers, and the depth Mads finds to show us, is nothing short of extraordinary, and easily one of the best performances in recent memory. After all, he won Best Actor at Cannes 2012, and they didn’t get it wrong. He wisely chooses when to stay quiet and internalized, and precisely when to not. His timing is impeccable, and although an Oscar nomination is extremely unlikely, he surely deserves one. Had audiences not deeply cared for this man, the film simply wouldn’t have worked. The stakes hang on his shoulders, and he doesn’t break a sweat.
Vinterberg masterfully controls the suspense as the film evolves, liberally choosing between lenses to visually juxtapose the widening difference between Lucas and his persecutors. There isn’t an absence of dialogue necessarily, but the film features many interludes between spoken word, and instead opts to rely on the bare tools of film craft. Because of this, many moments involve multiple meanings. For example, shadowed light sets the mood for a romantic encounter between Lucas and a co-worker while, at the same time, is used to generate tension as a coworker who heard the little girl’s story approaches that room in a tight hallway. That’s a basic and non-spoilery example to articulate how the film uses simple moments to convey multiple things.
There is also a political component involving the status of the male in society. His word is meaningless next to that of a young girl whose teachers constantly remind the audience has a wild imagination. That’s of course not to diminish the grave importance and heartbreak of pedophilia in any way, but had another issue been chosen to hammer home the dangers of making something so political it deafens otherwise perceptive ears, it may not have been believable. It’s an issue everyone can get behind, making it perfect fodder to show just the right idea told in just the right way can tap into the natural state of man to hunt. But, there’s another reason the issue of pedophilia was chosen. In the opening scene, Lucas and his best friends strip naked and take a plunge into the lake, and the camera is completely loose and free. Therefore, the camera is at its most naturalistic, depicting man in his natural naked state, in a completely organic and natural setting. This establishes a clear link between man and man and man and nature in a positive way. The following sequence shows the following: nature, a forest, a predator, and its prey. These two scenes used together coalesce into a vision of man still connected to our animalistic states, distanced from our trivial comforts. The reaction of the town people is barbaric and brutish, and it’s no coincidence the maternal instinct of women lead them to quickly accept the little girl’s fiction and protect their metaphorical cubs at all costs. The men are sent out as predators, in pursuit of violence and pain.
We’re all on the hunt.