Thursday, March 6, 2014

Red-Letter Day: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen in The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg

The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has proven his ability to play nice guys and even romantic leads, but with his heavy lids and puckered-up lips, on a large head riding atop an incongruously lumbering frame, he doesn’t have to work very hard to give audiences the impression that there may be something creepy and perverse about him. (Especially in the case of English-language audiences, who know him best for playing the villain in Daniel Craig’s first James Bond movie and Hannibal Lector on TV.) Mikkelsen is well-cast in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Jagten, in Danish), about a divorced, fortyish kindergarten teacher who is accused of sexual assault by a little girl who’s the daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). Mikkelsen’s character, Lucas, is totally sympathetic, and there’s nothing ambiguous about his innocence. One day, the girl, carelessly jumbling together the events of a day that began with her brother showing her a pornographic photo, says the wrong thing to the women who work at the kindergarten, and that’s it: the snowball has started rolling. But with Mikkelsen in the role, Lucas doesn’t have to be guilty, or even act guilty, for it to be plausible that the media, and people’s lurid imaginations, would take one look at him and think, as they did with Richard Jewell and Liddy Chamberlain, “Yeah, we can work with this.”

Vinterberg made his international reputation with The Celebration (Festen), the first and most conventionally commercial of the Dogme 95 movies, and then took a blowtorch to it with the ambitious English-language folly It’s All About Love. Festen was about a big family blow-out to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch, a party that viewers well-versed in melodrama could tell, about five minutes in, was going to unravel amid charges by one of the patriarch’s grown children that the old man was a child molester. The Hunt is also a melodrama, and it doesn’t break any new dramatic ground. But note for note, it’s probably a more honest piece of storytelling than The Celebration. It doesn’t sanctify Lucas, and it mostly resists the urge to yank too crudely at the heartstrings. (That’s one of the good things about having Mikkelsen in a role where bullies beat him up in a parking lot: you know that when he gets back up, he’ll be able to take care of himself.)

Susse Wold and Annika Wedderkopp in The Hunt
I wish that Lucas didn’t have a dog, and when that dog meets its inevitable, unsurprising fate, I wish that Lucas hadn’t decided that he had to dig its grave in the middle of a sudden rainstorm. And though I don’t begrudge Vinterberg his right to set the action over the holidays, that shot of Lucas sitting by himself in the dark with the helpful identifying title “CHRISTMAS EVE” flashing onscreen is a little bit much. Mostly, though, the movie just shows the process of how a man gets railroaded on the basis of nothing. Once the child has made her unintended accusation, the people at the kindergarten hold their meeting to discuss the allegations—a discussion that takes the form of telling the one person who believes in Lucas’ innocence, his girlfriend, that everyone has made up their mind, and if she doesn’t want to be an outcast, she needs to get in line. The man who runs the local market tells Lucas that he can’t come in anymore; he has other customers, and they have the right to shop someplace where there won’t be someone whose presence makes them uncomfortable. The police launch an official investigation, and soon have statements from several of the children that they, too, were molested by Lucas. Many of them tell a similar story of being raped in the basement of his house, although Lucas’ house doesn’t have a basement.

At one point, a brick is thrown through Lucas’ window, and Vinterberg cuts to a close-up of the window several beats before it’s shattered. This feels less like directorial incompetence than like the choice of a filmmaker who doesn’t want to risk making the audience jump and distracting it from soberly observing the process of how a witch hunt escalates. (This stubbornly level-headed approach can have a funny effect on the viewer. When Lucas is hauled off by the cops and the one friend who’s still standing by him—Bruun, played by Lars Ranthe—takes in his teenage son for the night, part of me began to suspect that Bruun was some kind of secret pervert who was going to put roofies in the kid’s milk and cookies. But that may have less to do with how the scene is directed than with the conventional expectations that we develop from seeing too many bad thrillers.)

The Hunt was one of this year’s nominees for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This was the same year that a number of people in the press wrote what amounted to open letters to Cate Blanchett, nominated for Best Actress for her work in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, cautioning her against saying anything in her acceptance speech that might be construed as being positive about her director. I have no way of knowing for sure whether Allen is a child rapist—though I have my personal feelings about whether it’s more likely that one of the most publicly analyzed men in the world, someone who lost his filter decades ago, and who is known to have had many long relationships with adult women, one day decided to give child rape a try, and seems never to have felt the urge to do it again, versus the possibility that a child who happened to be at ground zero during an incredibly bitter public breakup was convinced that something that hadn’t happened did happen, in the same way that scores of children and adults who were caught up in the satanic-ritual repressed-memory hoaxes of the 1980s and early 1990s came to believe things that weren’t true.

And I’m going on the same evidence as the people in the press who not only believe that Allen is absolutely, provably a child rapist, and should be punished and ostracized for it, but who react with open scorn and ridicule to the idea that Dylan Farrow’s reported memories of child abuse are false, as if they don’t know that the repressed-memory hoax even happened. The actual allegations against Allen go back to the last few months before the convictions and charges made in the frenzy of that hoax began to topple like so many dominoes, and the new wave of ever more frenzied denunciations of Allen aren’t based on any new evidence—they’re based on the fact that the old stuff can now be aired through social media, but people who seem to find them more plausible than people did twenty years ago, because they’ve grown up thinking of Woody Allen as a creepy old perv who’s capable of anything, so long as it’s sordid. Whatever its virtues and defects as a movie, The Hunt has these people to thank for the fact that it’s certainty timely. If “thank” is the right word.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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