Friday, December 7, 2012

The Hunt

Small Town Blues

Ever since 1998's remarkable Festen - potentially the most exhilarating realisation of the Dogme 95 manifesto - Thomas Vintenberg has threatened to live up to his obvious talent, but hasn't quite got there. It would be remiss to accuse him of laziness or lacking in ambition in the interim, though. His English language efforts It's All About Love and Dear Wendy were a noble failure and a semi-successful experiment respectively. Returning to Northern Europe, his last feature Submarino (which, alas, never received any significant attention outside the festival circuit) was getting there - an intense, relatively uncompromising character-driven drama. With The Hunt, however, Vintenberg has - arguably for the first time since Festen - made something special.

The film reexamines the same provocative subject matter that drove Festen, albeit this time with a distinctive twist. 'Did they do it?' is one of the classic dramatic questions, but one Vintenberg has no interest in here. From the off, its irrefutably clear that nursery assistant Lucas (Hollywood veteran Mads Mikkelsen) is innocent when he's accused of sexually abusing young Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). Klara is Theo's (Festen veteran Thomas Bo Larsen) daughter, and Theo is Lucas' best friend. As the rumours of Lucas' supposed misconduct spread, he's outcast by the members of his small rural community, and the populace eventually resort to acts of outright aggression to terrorise Lucas. Only his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) and old friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe) choose to stand by the wrongly accused.

First and foremost this is a devastating portrayal of mass hysteria. The misunderstandings escalate and escalate, to the point where Lucas is accused of all manner of grievous crimes, and is victim to escalating acts of 'retaliation'. What makes all this particularly compelling is the small-town setting. Friends and colleagues turn against the once well-liked man, and in two of the film's most prominent scenes he becomes the unwilling centre of attention on trips to the local supermarket and Christmas Eve mass. While the townspeople are guilty of appalling acts, the witch hunt is lent credibility and depth by Vintenberg's stellar character work. Several characters are genuinely, frustratingly conflicted - they know and trust Lucas, but are unable to ignore the comments of a small child. Theo is particularly torn - Lucas is his best friend, but how can he possibly dismiss the frightening comments of his beloved daughter?

Speaking of Klara, Vintenberg also does a fantastic job contextualising her damaging mistruths. Initially, it seems as if she's driven by sheer, vengeful vindictiveness - a young villain on a par with a certain Kevin there was something about. But the film is smarter than that, and shows how (potentially) a simple act of carelessness by her brother is partially responsible for her subsequent actions. Once the accusations have been made, the lie takes on a life of its own, and while Klara grows increasingly confused by the reactions to her 'confession' her parents and guardians only encourage an escalating sense of panic, hyperbole and confusion. Even as Klara seemingly grows to understand the scale of her lie, she's 'assured' that her memory is just distorted from trauma. A child is responsible for a life-altering accusation in The Hunt, but the adults are the one that allow it to escalate out of all proportion.

Aesthetically, the film is not too far removed from the militant naturalism of the Dogme films, albeit not above some moody lighting when its called for. If there's a problem worth noting, it's that there's a sort of clunkiness to the delivery at times, especially during the latter half of the second act - the exposition and dramatic developments lacking the elegance and sheer intensity on display elsewhere (the scenes where Lucas first realises the seriousness of the allegations and the scale of the hearsay are particularly well directed and acted). Still, even some of the plot's more 'expected' turns are delivered with surprising force, and the film - seemingly straightforward for much of its running time - ends on a note of ambiguity that adds welcome uncertainty to an otherwise deceptively optimistic conclusion. Compulsive viewing from a director who has well and truly gotten his groove back.

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