One of the founding members of the Dogme 95 movement, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg has struggled to match the monumental heights of his devastatingly powerful debut tale of domestic catharsis, Festen (1998). However, with The Hunt (Jagten, 2012), Vinterberg has once again found himself in the spotlight after receiving encouraging critical praise at both the Cannes and London film festivals. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works as a teacher at a local preschool whilst he fights for the custody of his son. He’s well liked and respected by both his pupils and the local community – many of whom Lucas has known all his life.
However, when a little white lie spun from the over imaginative mind of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) – one of Lucas’ pupils and the daughter of his oldest friend – materialises, Lucas’ world comes crashing down around him, finding himself accused of paedophilia and quickly becoming cast out and dealing with the brutal consequences of this social ostracism. There’s little subtlety to Vinterberg’s latest, from the film’s succinct title to its narrow focus on Lucas – whose innocence is never in question – yet The Hunt somehow remains a harrowing depiction of a society mutated by media sensationalism and consumed with fear.
Capturing the heightened tension of his protagonist’s plight, with The Hunt Vinterberg has created an engrossing nightmare of a film which hooks you from the get-go (thanks primarily to Mikkelsen’s brooding performance which is thoroughly deserving of his best actor award at Cannes). However, this boiling pot of dramatic oppression quickly comes undone the moment the credits roll and the audience awakes to a world built on well-rounded individuals and not a collection of narrative ciphers fuelled on a limited diet of tabloid scaremongering and modelled predominantly on pitchfork-wielding villagers, who congregate like lost sheep with a wolf in their midst.
It’s easy to become caught up in the whirlwind of torment and hysteria Vinterberg puts Lucas through, fanning the flames of social unrest with devastating set pieces and fierce encounters. The fragile foundation this aggressive inquest is built around is the tentative belief that “children always tell the truth” – something anyone who’s ever had the privilege of spending time with a precocious six-year-old will endlessly dispute. It’s a curious idea to build such a grandiose accusation around, when the inherent fear all parents have that their children could be hurt would have easily been enough of a catalyst for this glorified witch hunt.
Absorbing, yet ultimately forgettable this gruelling and voyeuristic depiction of an innocent man suffering at the hands of a frenzied mob adds nothing new to its subject. After the assured and gripping way in which Vinterberg dealt with paedophilia with Festen his overly dramatic and pointedly black and white approach feels like a major disappointment, with The Hunt’s manufactured narrative twists and artificially channelled dialogue feeling more like the basis of an exaggerated TV drama than the hard-hitting psychological satire it’s clearly attempting to be – a gripping drama with little to no relevance to the real world.