“Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength” (Psalm 8:2). Never has a re-contextualised proverb so inadvertently and succinctly condensed a film’s subject matter than this one. The Hunt opens with a male bonding session, big, burly men drinking, removing their clothes and throwing themselves into a freezing cold stream in the middle of Danish winter for the purposes of a bet. Doing what “men” purportedly do. The one who has to rescue his pal when he develops cramp is somewhat different to the rest of the hunting party; slight and bespectacled, he jumps in, sensibly, fully clothed – his physicality reminiscent of Hoffman’s David in Straw Dogs (1971, dir. Sam Peckinpah).
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is an amiable divorced father of one, trying to gain custody of his teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm); working in the local kindergarten after the closure of the secondary school in which he was previously employed. There are hints from some that believe in the unsuitability of a man working in a nursery, especially given his minority as the only male employee, but his naturalness with the children soon dismisses these archaic views. Lucas has friends, this is evident from the film’s commencement, close friendships made in childhood but most of these men have wives and children present and Lucas tends to cut a lonely figure in comparison. His best friend Theo (Vinterberg alum, Thomas Bo Larsen) has two children, one of whom is Klara (lucidly played by Annika Wedderkopp) an eccentric child with a vivid imagination who often wanders the streets alone because her parents fail to notice her missing or she is so deeply focussed on avoiding the cracks in the pavement. After her father’s friend shows her a little attention, she develops a crush and when Lucas understandably and gently rejects her, after she kisses him on the mouth, he pays a hefty price. Klara’s blatant accusation, after all “Children do not lie. At least not about things like this”, causes a devastating fall out and the once close-knit community splinters into shards of hysteria, amid recriminations and reproach, with the teacher becoming the victim of a persecutory witch-hunt.
Mikkelsen (A Royal Affair; Valhalla Rising) is outstanding – whether playing maniacal villains, silent assassins, derisive lovers or sensitive every-men – he is consistently exceptional. Here, he delivers a Cannes-award winning performance as mild-mannered educator Lucas acted with real sensitivity, precision and humanity. There is a dignity and hushed calculation to the way in which, as the character, he handles the damaging aspersions. However, when the events do threaten to break the exterior, specifically in the supermarket sequence and later during Midnight Mass his actions devastate further. The deftly worked script co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm is weighted in realism, for the most part, until taking a symbolic swerve at the dénouement and all without a hint of emotional manipulation or overt sentimentality often associated with this type of story. That said, this is not a comfortable watch and whilst gripping, powerful and thought-provoking The Hunt is unsettling and gut-wrenching; a cinematic sledgehammer of a realisation as to just how injurious and distressing an untruth, however small, can truly be.