By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 9, 2014)
Did you ever play “telephone” when you were a kid? Assuming that some readers were raised on texting, it is a party game/psychology 101 exercise in which one person whispers a message to another, moving down the line until it reaches the last player, who then repeats it loud enough for all to hear. More often than not, the original context gets lost in translation once it runs through the gauntlet of misinterpretations, preconceptions and assumptions that generally fall under the umbrella of “human nature”.
The Hunt is a shattering drama from Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (co-written by Tobias Lindholm) that vividly demonstrates the singularly destructive power of “assumption”. When we first meet bespectacled, mild-mannered kindergarten teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), he is just beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel following a difficult and emotionally draining divorce. Well-liked by his students and fellow teachers and bolstered by the support of long-time friends like Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) Lucas is picking up the pieces and embarking on a fresh start. He lives and works in a small, tightly-knit community, where few residents would be considered “strangers”
One day at school, some of Lucas’ students decide to “dog pile” their teacher. Watching from the wings is Theo’s daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a withdrawn but sweet little girl who knows Lucas not only as a teacher, but as a family friend. She joins the giggly pile of kids and kisses Lucas, full on the lips. He immediately takes Klara aside and gently admonishes her, explaining that it is inappropriate for her to kiss any adult on the lips (other than Mom and Dad). But 5 year old Klara is only puzzled and hurt by what she simply perceives as rejection. A while later, the school principal (Susse Wold) spots a tearful Klara. She asks her what is wrong. Klara’s answer is a sulking child’s innocent lie, but it ignites a real life game of “telephone” that is about to turn a man’s life upside down.
Mikkelsen’s performance as a man struggling to keep his head above water whilst being inexorably pulled into a maelstrom of Kafkaesque travails is nothing short of astonishing. The film is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of mob mentality, at times recalling Fritz Lang’s Fury. There are also flashes of Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal, particularly in the protagonist’s dogged refusal to dignify the accusations by neither denying guilt nor going out of his way to profess his innocence. Interestingly, the film dredges up memories of the real life day-care sex abuse hysteria (perhaps best personified by the high-profile McMartin preschool trial) that seemed to dominate the media throughout the 1990s (remember all the ballyhoo over “Satanic rituals” and the “false memories” phenomenon? Good times). The Hunt is powerful, intense and unsettling, yet essential. And that’s no lie.