When a film’s pre-release marketing includes mention of false accusations of pedophilia, and the subsequently unraveling world of the accused kindergarten assistant, and it has been included in Competition at Cannes, you could be forgiven for expecting an openly provocative project designed for no more than an Ulrich Seidl style rise from the audience. But unlike last year’s festival inclusion Michael, from Austrian director Markus Schleinzer, Jagten or The Hunt in my mother tongue, takes a more subtle approach to the considerably dangerous material, exploring lead character Lucas’ accusation as a harrowing situational horror that crawls under the audiences skin and which is profoundly successful as a slow-burning drama with a biting edge.
While the horror of Michael was in the matter of fact way the film presented its protagonist – a pedophile who keeps his young victim captive in a basement prison – in perversely conventional terms, Jagten’s horror is far more artfully conceived, presenting an irresistible What If situation that quickly escalates because of the nature of an accusation and the dangers of gossip and presumption. In the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg, we watch with tangible horror as the cataclysmic waves blossom out from a malicious lie and threaten to swallow up Mads Mikkelsen’s Lucas.
We meet Lucas as he is seemingly turning a corner in his life after being made redundant and suffering through a messy divorce, which has all but ruined his chance of a functional relationship with his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), but when an adolescent crush turns sour, his best friend’s daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) unthinkably accuses him of sexual abuse. Preferring to believe the innocence of youth over Lucas’ denial, kindergarten head Grethe (Susse Wold) believes Klara, and the knots tying Lucas’ world quickly unpick as more false accusations surface and his friends and community ostracize him for his supposed crimes while a police investigation attempts to discover the truth.
As the situation unwinds, we are forced to watch with discomforting voyeurism and empathy as an innocent man is trapped in a whirlpool of suspicion and derision because of the nature of the accusation against him, and persecuted to the point of violence. It is an uncomfortable experience to say the least, and the film’s greatest success is that it claws its way under the audience’s skin, leaving pronounced triggers for outrage but aligning us with Marcus’ helplessness to even greater success.
The way the film builds its horror, through Grethe’s ineptitude in dealing with the situation, and her eventual role in propelling the rumors of the accusation, offers a commentary on the dangers of community-moralizing, especially in such emotionally charged circumstances. Usually, we are offered this sort of story from the outside, a slow revelation of abuse from the victim’s position (or through a third party detective), and this new approach is refreshing and hauntingly effective for its departure.
Mikkelsen will no doubt emerge with the highest plaudits for his role as Lucas, his poised exterior only breaking as the situation develops and his deterioration is both compelling and completely authentic, and every award suggestion will be completely justified. The success of that deterioration is chiefly because of what Mikkelson brings to the character prior to his fall, painting a hugely likeable character with restrained but refined charisma and deep-lying, intriguing emotional wounds.
Alongside him, Thomas Bo Larsen stands out strongly as Lucas’ best friend, torn between dedication to his daughter, and repulsed by the possibility that his closest friend could commit such a harrowing act, and the nagging doubt that ultimately casts him as one of the piece’s villains.
Elsewhere Lars Ranthe is very good as the sole voice of reason among Lucas’ friends, offering heart and a touch of pitch-black humor, and Lasse Fogelstrom handles his responsibilities as Lucas’ angry son with maturity and presence. And something must be said of youngster Annika Wedderkopp who is brilliant as Klara, both angelic and vindictive when necessary, but wholly authentic, which is rare for someone so young, especially given the subject matter.
The film takes care not to vilify Lucas’ accusers too much, consciously fore-fronting the spectre of doubt throughout, and even though we know Lucas is innocent, the idea of being in the same position as the parents and teachers who hysterically advance the situation remains part and parcel of the horror of Lucas’ situation.
The Hunt is a hugely affecting film, inspiring the full gambit of emotions from humor through to fist-clenching rage, exploring the dangers of group ethics in a clever and nuanced way that is successful in part thanks to a very strong script from Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm and a career-high, authentic turn from Mads Mikkelsen.
It is a chilling, and engrossing crescendo of horror, pitch-perfect in its execution, and while it might not be given the wide commercial release it deserves, it is strongly recommended that you go and find it.
The Upside: Mads Mikkelson gives a phenomenally strong performance as the tortured wretch at the center of the film’s harrowing situational horror.
The Downside: Sadly, nowhere near enough people will see this absolute treasure.