***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***
Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" (2012) is set in a small Danish village, a self-sufficient universe where the population is sparse, and all the townsfolk seem to know each other pretty well. It is a quaint little neighbourhood, where the state of affairs is calmer and quieter than the serene and picturesque surroundings that these individuals are graced with. It is the kind of small town where people have grown up together, known each other for years and hence share a very strong bond. The village then, is like a family in itself.
The protagonist, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is one such member of this community, a well-respected, friendly, trusted individual, who is separated from his wife but is happy that his teenaged son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) would be joining him soon. A former teacher at school, he is now working in a nursery for kids with Grethe (Susse Wold). The amicable Lucas is quite popular with the kids. He actually becomes one of them, has fun and frolics around with them. He clearly enjoys his job and the healthy interaction with the children. What’s more, his beautiful colleague Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) expresses a strong interest in him and life seems to be going great guns for Lucas.
Little does he know though, that his life is about to be turned upside down, when one of the kids, a young girl Klara (Annika Wedderkopp, in a stupendous performance), who also happens to be his best friend Theo's (Thomas Bo Larsen) daughter makes a rather vague statement about Lucas that hints at sexual abuse, over his minor, but justified snub!
Vinterberg's film paints a rather scary, but accurate picture of the cataclysmic effects of a tiny lie, especially if it comes from a child. For the uninitiated, it may seem a bit too far-fetched and contrived when Grethe, the nursery supervisor instantly believes Klara's obviously vague story and gets help from a child psychologist who throws Klara off balance with his leading and uncomfortable questions.
Only it is common knowledge that there is a widespread belief that a child can never lie, especially about inappropriate conduct from an adult! Apparently, there is no way a child can make up all those things, for its fragile little mind is simply not capable. But is that really the truth? What of those mischievous teens or even some parents who are careless with what they say or do in front of their kids? We are shown early on, how Klara's vulnerable little mind is polluted with her brother's flippant act of exposing her to porn, even if for a split second! Klara's lie contains fragments of that careless but affecting exposure to something that a child of her age isn't ready for. What's worse is, even if later, she retracts her statement, it is considered as denial from fear of having said or done something awful!
Vinterberg hits the bull's eye when it comes to child psychology and the adults' seemingly inadequate ways of understanding this psychology! Klara clearly doesn't realize the gravity of her implication or the magnitude of the possible devastation her accusation is capable of giving way to. But given her innocence and difficulty in comprehending these matters, there is no way one could possibly reason with her. The situation, of course, goes out of hand, all hell breaks loose, and Lucas gradually becomes a victim of mass hysteria. All his trusted friends and loyalists turn their backs on him. He becomes an outcast, with even Theo refusing to believe him.
Vinterberg very precisely portrays how a lack of clarity can mushroom into grapevines stemming from frivolous assumptions. And hence, even though Klara initially makes broken and unclear statements, the sane adults do the job of filling the gaps and forming their own sordid stories of Lucas' non-existent evil deeds. Other children follow suit and possibly out of confusion or because of words being put into their mouths, make similar accusations! In such a state, Lucas is left to fend for himself, with only his son Marcus and one friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe) standing by his side to help him.
Mads Mikkelsen portrays the angst of a broken man with a restrained but superlative performance. The anxiety shows on his face, but the awareness of his innocence keeps his spirit intact and he tries not to react in a way that would destroy his chances at exoneration. His character reactions are as realistic as they get except in one tiny bit in a church mass. Noteworthy is the scene in which he is thrown out of a grocery store with physical violence. Lucas never raises a finger when hit. "You can’t hit someone like that", he keeps saying. After all, he still behaves like a civilized individual while the so-called morally upright men, the self-proclaimed upholders of a virtuous society around him resort to fists! It is only when they refuse to let him take his groceries that he finally decides to use the physical strength that he possesses.
"The Hunt" showcases Thomas Vinterberg's firm command on the narrative in a film that is well-written and well-shot. Apart from being a tense, gripping drama, Vinterberg's film is a remarkable study of herd mentality and how unwarranted rumours can permanently destroy an innocent man's immaculate reputation. It is also a very important wakeup call and a cautionary tale of sorts for parents. You can never be too careful with children, but what you expose your children to, even unknowingly and how they perceive it is an extremely delicate matter and needs a lot of investment of thought.
The immensely satisfying culmination hints at one of two things. No matter how innocent a man is in the eyes of the law, some individuals will always believe that he is guilty and that he got away with his crime. Thus, he will never be completely vindicated. Or perhaps, it means, that it doesn't matter that the incident is far behind, or that life has moved on and people have grown up and accepted him in the society again. The psychological damage is irreversible and the trauma lives on. The man will always be watching over his shoulder, with a feeling of being hunted for the rest of his life!