It should come as no surprise that my first real exposure to Mads Mikkelsen, like many people Stateside, came via his turn as the villainous Le Chiffre in 2006's Casino Royale. Even in a film that stands as one of my favorite James Bond tales of all time, Mikkelsen stood out to me, but it wasn't until his run on NBC's Hannibal that he thoroughly won me over, ensuring that he'll forever and always be one of "those actors" who I'll look forward to seeing in anything. After all, it seemed impossible for someone to take on the role of the iconic Hannibal Lecter and live up to Anthony Hopkins, but Mikkelsen did it, becoming the definitive version of the character for me - and many others, surely - all while demonstrating just how fantastic an actor he is.
Though he's been in numerous acclaimed Danish-language films, The Hunt was my first foray into that side of his body of work, and a film I had high expectations for considering all the awards it had reaped for itself following its release. To see the actor away from big budget films and refined cannibalism and in an incredibly small-scale film about such a very poignant issue was more than intriguing, especially coupled with the fact that I had no preconceived notions about writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, whose prior work I had never experienced, making The Hunt a pure, fresh experience.
The Hunt kicks off with just another day in the life of Mikkelsen's Lucas, a man who clearly cares for the children he helps teach, particularly his best friend's young daughter, Klara. Lucas has his own set of issues, though, including having to deal with a distant ex-wife and maintain a relationship with the son who lives with her, and it comes as a minor surprise one day to him when - during a moment when he is roughhousing with some of the kids at the school - Klara jumps on him, planting both a kiss on his lips and a love note in his pocket.
In response, Lucas kindly lets the young girl down, even attempting to convince her to pass the note along to one of her schoolmates instead, and makes nothing else of it. Unfortunately, Klara's embarrassment and young, broken, and jealous heart leads to a misguided, childish claim to the kindergarten's director that Lucas had sexually abused her, setting off a chain of events that spiral too far out of control even before Lucas learns of the allegation and is able to defend himself.
From here on out, Lucas's life falls to tatters, as the close-knit community he's a part of turns against him and old friends become violent enemies, with no one willing to consider his side of the argument simply because no one wants to believe that a child could lie about something so heinous, even when she herself admits to the lie. And as hysteria breaks out - suddenly, of course, every parent whose kid attends the kindergarten comes to believe their child, too, was abused, thanks in part to an overwhelming sense of pressure on the impressionable young children to admit something happened that never did - the question of whether Lucas can come out the other end, not just emotionally but alive, looms large over the film.
In essence, the film exposes how the overreaction to a single lie can blow out of proportion overnight, ruining lives and creating a stigma that can never be wiped away even when evidence points to the contrary. Without going too much farther into spoiler territory, the film does indeed follow through Lucas's trial and the subsequent aftermath, and the simple idea that a verdict in the court of public opinion - however wrong it is - can be stronger than the judgment of the law itself is a terrifying one, reinforced in a final sequence that sees Lucas coming face to face with the reality of his future.
The supporting players in the story are excellent, humanized in a way that makes them wholly believable, including Thomas Bo Larsen's Theo, Lucas's best friend and father of Klara, who struggles throughout nearly the entire film, caught between the heartbreak that Lucas could do this to him and his family and the underlying guilt in case his daughter is lying; Susse Wold's Grethe, the director whose overreaction to Klara's claims and immediate decision that Lucas is guilty serves as the frustrating, all-too-real lynchpin of everything that goes wrong; Lasse Fogelstrøm's Marcus, Lucas's son who stands by his father's side even at the risk of physical harm; and - last but not least - Klara, played by Annika Wedderkopp, who does a fantastic job for such a young actor in conveying the young girl's confusion and inability to grasp the severity of what her lie has done to Lucas in a way that's heartbreaking to watch.
In showcasing such a large number of viewpoints, the film really lends weight to how the lie blows up. From Klara's point of view, it was an innocent, if wholly wrong mistake. From the community's point of view, it's easy to relate to the sense of paranoia that comes from such a claim, especially in the modern world where misinformation spreads faster than the truth. And from Lucas's point of view, he handled the situation as he saw fit, with everything else going on in his life enough to distract him from sharing what happened with anyone else - like Theo - before it all blew up behind his back.
To put it mildly, Lucas goes through the ringer in this film, and Mikkelsen absolutely nails his performance every step of the way, from his great attitude with the kids early on to his confusion over the claims to the frustration he feels as everything slips out of his control to the absolute soul-crushing weight of everyone he's known turning against him. It's a tough arc to watch for a character who has good in his heart, and it speaks a lot to Lucas's strength as a character that he never turns his anger towards Klara, even when she shows up uninvited on his doorstep while his life is falling apart to see if she can walk his dog.
In tackling such weighty subject matter, the film also brings to the surface other obnoxious stigmas. After the lie has spread, suddenly everyone questions the fact that Lucas is a male teacher, as if the very concept is highly suspicious; that a man would want to dedicate his life to teaching kids can't be enough, but that there must be some sick reason behind his career choice. It's even suspected by some that maybe Lucas is a homosexual, and that such a thing automatically makes the accusation that he's some sort of sexual predator all the more valid.
There's a lot at play here, and the subject matter, themes, and issues that all come with it fill the entire film from beginning to end with something to think about. There's no real fancy camerawork, as Vinterberg smartly keeps it simple, allowing the narrative and the performances he gets out of his actors to shine, though he and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen do solid work in imbuing the visuals of the film with an ever-increasing sense of isolation and cold as seasons change and Lucas finds himself increasingly alone. It's subtle work, but it compliments the very idea of the community turning on Lucas in a solidly stylistic way without ever drawing attention to itself.
The Hunt isn't an easy film to watch. It's not fun, and makes sure to never make light of the situation, treating it with respect by taking efforts to show the misunderstanding from every point-of-view, carefully avoiding pointing fingers at any one party while demonstrating the dangers of paranoia and unwarranted, lasting effects of social stigma. That said, it's incredibly thought-provoking, profound in a way that stays with you long after the movie is over, and though it's not a film I'm in a rush to see again anytime soon, it's one that I'm incredibly grateful to have seen and will undoubtedly continue to recommend for years to come.
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