Sometimes it’s the smallest lies that carry the biggest repercussions, for both individuals and their communities. That’s certainly the case with The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg‘s drama about the destructive power of a simple lie.
Winner of the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Hunt is a sturdy cautionary tale, bolstered by effective performances and level-headed direction. Yet it’s also a largely plain film. What ends up being more noticeable is the reserved treatment of the raw subject matter, rather than the characters and their somewhat meandering story.
Set in a small Danish town, The Hunt begins with scenes of life in harmony. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), is a teacher at the local school. And while Mikkelsen’s snake-like features are often used to unnerve viewers, the actor is able to create a believable portrait of a man loved by his community and his students (most of whom are very young). In addition to being popular at his job, Lucas is also part of a group of men in the town who go on annual hunts in the nearby forrest. With the exception of some troubles involving his ex-wife and the custody of his son Marcus, Lucas’ life is a happy one. That is, until one of Lucas’ young students (Annika Wedderkopp) accuses Lucas of sexual abuse. Despite the girl’s oft-mentioned colorful imagination, repeated conversations lead officials at the school to believe that her story is legitimate.
The intro and first accusations take up roughly 40 minutes of the story, yet Vinterberg is in no hurry to get the ball rolling, with good and bad results. On one hand, it gives The Hunt room to explore the ways in which the town ostracizes Lucas. At first it starts with a temporary suspension and the (admittedly understandable) anger from the student’s parents. Yet as they investigation is dragged on, things escalate, and soon Lucas is banned from the local grocery shop. Even when Marcus comes to stay with Lucas for Christmas, Lucas’ life continues its downward slide. On one level, it’s frustrating to never get a better sense of the investigation, which ads up to barely more than two scenes post-accusation. Yet what this offers the film is a chance to examine the way different parties in town react, acting on an accusation that has no evidence behind it. Though Lucas is the center of the story, other members of the town are never painted in broad strokes, so the film avoids caricature even as it remains quietly on Lucas’ side.
The downside, however, is that there are stretches in the main stretch of The Hunt that are in need of sharper focus. Many individual scenes are strong, and none betray the overall tone. The problem is that Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm haven’t quite struck the right balance between its examination of Lucas and his increasingly hostile neighbors. The film occasionally darts off to other characters as if to suggest that the script intends to examine the town as a whole, rather than just Lucas. Yet it never really follows through on either promise. Mikkelsen, to his credit, is quite strong (as is the whole ensemble), and holds the film together. The character may be something of a victim, but neither Mikkelsen nor Vinterberg go for easy, saintlike characterization. A scene set in the town church, which could have proved overbearing in its thematic importance, is riveting because of its gradual build and lack of false histrionics.
Yet even as individual scenes (and Mikkelsen) impress, The Hunt is ultimately somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The basic premise and subject matter are rich with potential, yet Vinterberg takes a safe (albeit mature) approach. As a result, the film can drag at times, which isn’t helped by the narrative structure (split over several months, and then jumping to a year later). There’s nothing that sticks out as bad (and there is some lovely photography here and there), yet as a whole The Hunt never comes together in a way that makes it truly hit home. The Hunt, to its credit, ends on a high note with a chilling final scene that intelligently brings the thematic arc full-circle. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough that precedes it to make the whole thing any more than competent and ordinary, even with Mikkelsen’s compelling turn at the narrative’s core.