Our world would be great if we, as members of a “free and developed” society, could boast that the days of witch hunts were in our distant and primitive past, never to be seen again. Sadly, that’s just not true. They happen now just as they did in 17th century Salem — perhaps with different accusations and more “humane” punishments — but the same human weakness remains regrettably intact. Danish director and screenwriter Thomas Vinterberg shows us this sad reality in his remarkable and excruciatingly tense film, Jagten (The Hunt).
To begin this review bluntly, The Hunt left me in awe — both of its message and its method. Leaving an avid film buff momentarily speechless and mentally helpless is certainly no small feat. For this, my hat goes off to Mr. Vinterberg. Please allow me to give you a closer look at how and why The Hunt does exactly what it sets out to do.
The plot plays simply enough. Recently separated father and kindergarten aide Lucas seems to be turning his life around with a new girlfriend and renewed relationship with his son. Lucas’s life is simple, and his nature is kind. He enjoys spending time with friends and hunting in his small, close-knit Danish town. Lucas’s pleasant reality is quickly destroyed when one of the children under his care accuses him of sexual abuse. What ensues is an eerie look at the stunning power of unfounded belief.
To be sure, the plot of this film is powerful enough on its own. However, when placed in the hands of some very capable actors, the plot takes on a more vivid and starker reality that few would like to acknowledge, and fewer still would like to re-create. Lucas is played flawlessly by Mads Mikkelson. Mikkelson’s Lucas instantly enamors viewers with his kind and unassuming nature. He also shows us the bleak helplessness of an innocent man isolated by his community, shunned by his friends, and terrorized by strangers.
Lucas has viewers rooting for him, but all the while in fear of reprisal — or even guilt by association. Lucas’s best friend, Theo, is expertly played by Thomas Bo Larsen. In Theo, viewers see a man almost instantly willing to disown (and even physically attack) someone who had been a close friend of many years. Kindergarten head teacher Grethe, played by Susse Wold, is a perfect mirror image of human irrationality and baseless fear. Only two characters refuse to believe the accusations against Lucas: his friend Bruun and his son Marcus, played by Lars Ranthe and Lasse Fogelstrøm, respectively. These two characters remind viewers of rationality and loyalty in a world where such qualities don’t exist.
Technically speaking, The Hunt is beautifully understated. So much of what made this film so effective was its simplicity and realism. There are no disproportionately beautiful people. No explosions. No fancy editing. No “overly-scripted” dialogue. No “Williams-esque” film scores. No tagged-on plot twists. The semi-documentary cinematography style adds to the sense of being in the room watching events unfold, but it’s not overdone to the point of being nauseating or distracting. The pacing is natural, and there are no awkward temporal shifts. While watching this movie, if you are able to rip yourself away from the story, you realize you are in the hands of a master storyteller completely in control of his craft.
The implications of The Hunt are heavy and far-reaching. Its central theme of “baseless belief is dangerous” is nothing new. However, as the theme is applied in this particular story, viewers see how quickly a child’s idle comment that is one part regurgitation and one part post-rejection spite can turn into wild accusations — and, more creepily, complete belief in those accusations. Viewers, particularly adult men who work with or around children, also come to understand the precarious ground they walk upon. Indeed, in this story, the town’s attitude is “guilty until proven innocent — and even then still guilty.” The psychology behind this kind of thinking calls to mind an excellent book entitled The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. Shermer asserts that people form their belief first, and then apply logic and seek out evidence that supports that belief. Though I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion about Shermer’s book, the research he includes provides a very useful lens to watch The Hunt through.
Simply put, I highly recommend The Hunt. Even though I could go on for hours about the merit of its plot, technical achievements, acting, and reach of its thematic elements, the fact remains that this film affected me. Deeply. And though it may be a mistake to judge the quality of a movie solely upon the emotions it incites, I will continue to make that mistake. Emotions, mine or yours, are things we don’t have the power, or cause, to justify.
Photos via: Google