THE HUNT (Thomas Vinterberg)
By Robert Koehler
The strange case of Thomas Vinterberg is a model of a director not to follow, lest you fall into the chasm known as Submarino (2010). The case, though, has made a new and unexpected turn. News flash (sort of): The Hunt is a solidly made, consistently coherent and steadily intensifying drama that extols the great Scandanavian theatrical tradition of the idea of a single conscience against the world. In one sense, The Hunt is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, re-set for our era of fears (real and imagined) of pedophilia. But it’s also a case of a director who, since the vastly overrated The Celebration, has suggested the promise of making films generated by vital dramatic ideas, failed on that promise over the past decade, and yet now may have finally found his focus.
In this way, that clever promotional gimmick known as Dogme ’95, of which Vinterberg was a part, was the worst thing that could have happened to him. His best instincts are theatrical, not cinematic, and the trickery of Dogme with its pseudo-Calvinist self-abnegation and disposal of “production values,” proved a distraction. Re-positioned in the world of Ibsen, where he clearly belongs, Vinterberg finds a central idea and holds it close. Better, he plays it out to its logical conclusion.
The premise: What’s a lonely, divorced man to do when turned upon by a little girl who’s not his own but has great affection for him? Working as an assistant at a suburban Danish kindergarten, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a favorite of the kids, even as he struggles with his ex-wife to get more visitation rights with his teen son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). (This drama-within-the-drama echoes a similar charged dynamic at the center of Radu Jude’s superb Berlin festival film, Everyone in the Family.) Unexpectedly, after a pleasant stretch where Lucas gives a bit of extra attention to little, darling Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)—including walking her home—she imagines a sexual encounter with him.
People tend to believe children, as more than one character observes, and this universal tendency sets a trap for Lucas, who finds that not only the entire school staff, but much of the town suspects and turns against him. Vinterberg insists upon Lucas’ position, viewing the McMartinesque drift of the community as a pull toward collective madness that reaches a level of unhinged physical danger in a tense sequence in a supermarket. The movie increasingly becomes Mikkelsen’s: His hawk-like features soften under the continual blows to his sense of self and worth, his deflated body slowed by the weight of what’s falling down on him. Vinterberg, though, doesn’t exclusively privilege Lucas: When he’s finally arrested, The Hunt shifts for a time to Marcus as a way to illustrate the full human cost of what’s unfolding. Through this mechanism, it becomes clear that Vinterberg is fundamentally an actor’s director, and when he lands upon a naturally dramatic subject that can unlock buried emotions, the results leave a mark. Even what appears to be a facile finale (or as the supertitle on screen announces, “one year later”), the closing moments leave the viewer in a state of suspended uncertainty, once again disturbed and aware that what may have been resolved is only an illusion.