Featuring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport, Ole Dupont
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Writer: Thomas Vinterberg, Tobias Lindholm
2012-13 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville 7–13 January, 8pm; Joondalup Pines 15–20 January, 8pm
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: stunning)
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) lives in a small tight-knit Norwegian rural town, and is going through a rough patch. He’s entangled in a bitter custody battle over his teenage son with his ex-wife and is a casualty of the flailing economy. Having lost his teaching post, he is working with kids in a temporary position at the local kindergarten. One of the children, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), develops a crush on him, and is hurt by his gentle redirection of her affections towards her peers. In retaliation, and referencing some pornographic images her older brother has flashed at her from his iPad, she lies that Lucas has exposed himself to her. The head of the kindergarten mishandles the subsequent investigation, and before long the rumour that Lucas is a child molester has spread through the town. Deserted by all but one of his long-term friends, his fight to establish his innocence appears a hopeless cause as the town closes ranks against him.
The movie opens with a scene of idyllic natural beauty and tranquility: a group of deer grazing in a forest. A shot rents the quiet and the animals scatter. But one has been hit, and is easily traced by hunters following the blood trail, who find it not far away, breathing its last. Then follows a traditional ritual of celebratory boozing, the hunters – town locals including Lucas – laughing loud and raucous into the night, playing drinking games around a long wooden table and chanting encouragement as the “loser” skols his beer.
Thus, the scene is set symbolically for what is to follow, the irony being that Lucas is soon to become the innocent hunted, convicted without trial and spurned by all seated around the long table of mateship and bonhomie. Parallels with the Last Supper are retrospectively unavoidable, though not apparent at this early stage of the film.
It’s truly horrifying that a little girl’s innocent lie – and I mean innocent in the sense that she has no idea of its dire implications for Lucas – should flare up with the unstoppable destructive power of a firestorm, fuelled by the hysteria of adults confronted with the prospect that there is a pedophile in their midst. Pedophiles are, of course, the witches of the 21st century – unspeakably evil and depraved, and hidden within the society they threaten while masquerading as “one of us”. Unlike witches, pedophiles are real, as is the damage they wreak on their victims. Which justifies the outrage and disgust of society at their crimes, but not the blind vigilante baying for blood that too often accompanies it.
As with witches, once the suspicion of pedophilia is aroused, an inquisitional culture takes over and otherwise fair and level-headed people see evidence of guilt where before they saw nothing at all. This abrupt transformation from rational to irrational is brilliantly depicted in The Hunt.
Klara’s lie is progressively embellished by the head of the kindergarten and a child psychologist who interviews her, plying her with leading questions and reinterpreting her vague responses to tighten the noose of guilt around Lucas’ neck. I did find myself wondering whether in reality any psychologist could be this stupid and irresponsible in their line of questioning, and decided that yes, it’s quite possible given the pedophilia phobia that is rife today.
As is the way with small towns, the Chinese whisper effect soon takes hold. Prompted by parents’ questioning, other kids in the kindergarten recall being abused in Lucas’ basement. Their tales are dismissed as fabrication only when it is revealed that there is no basement in his home. But the Inquisition doesn’t give up that easily.
Lucas has become not just the foulest of felons, but a scapegoat, a receptacle for the town’s bile. When he goes grocery shopping, a supermarket employee launches a brutal unprovoked assault, leaving him battered and bloodied on the floor. The supermarket manager, far from helping him up, bars him from the store.
There is a certain relish about their actions, a sense of righteously projecting all society’s ills on a pariah, of purging through a sacrificial lamb, which picks up on the Biblical resonances of the opening scene around the long table.
All but one of Lucas’ friends desert him, and even visit the perceived sins of the father upon his teenage son. Despite the case against him being thrown out of court, the town remains convinced of his guilt, unwilling to countenance the awful possibility that a little child could lie. Indeed, poor Klara, bewildered by all the fuss, tries several times to confess that she had “said a foolish thing” and that Lucas had done nothing wrong, but her parents refuse to hear her, dismissing her protestations as confusion or evidence of her suppression of the terrible truth. It is unthinkable for them to even consider the possibility that it is their flesh and her lie, not Lucas, who is to blame for the malaise, the collective lust for vengeance, that has taken over the town and morally privileged an enraged lynch mob with determining and dispensing justice.
In a stunningly dramatic climax to the film, his cross too much to bear, Lucas confronts the townsfolk as they sit piously united in church on Christmas Eve, howling out a heart-rending plea of innocence. This is emotionally powerful stuff, a savage slug to the guts that doubles you over and leaves you as winded as the characters in the church. When was the last time a movie did that to you?
There is another moment in the aftermath of the church scene in which Lucas and Klara come face to face that will have you covering up in anticipation of a follow-up knockout blow – excruciatingly tense to watch.
Mads Mikkelsen is a tour de force as Lucas; indeed, his performance is reason enough in itself to see the film. Children are almost always astoundingly natural as actors, and Annika Wedderkopp as Klara is no exception. Thomas Bo Larsen adeptly handles his complex role as a father torn apart by rage, doubt and his conscience.
This is not comfortable viewing. Some of society’s sacred cows are put to the lash: the myth that small children do not lie, for example (especially your children). The fragility of friendship, and notably male camaraderie, is mercilessly focused upon. As are small town dynamics in dealing with a perceived threat from within.
But the small town that is the site for this drama is merely a microcosm. The lessons of this superb work are applicable to societies everywhere. There are no answers here, but the final shocking scene of the movie poses a question that echoes through the credit roll and on into the world outside as you make your way home:
How do we strike a balance between protecting children from predators and safeguarding against inquisitional tendencies on the part of suspicious investigators that in a paranoid, phobic society can taint innocent adults for life?
Important, unmissable. Mark this one down and make the effort to catch it.
Starts at the Somerville on January 7th, then moves to Joondalup Pines from Jan 15th, with last screening on January 20th.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives