After the fairly tepid responses to his work between Festen (1998) and Submarino (2010, Thomas Vinterberg returns to his thematic roots in The Hunt, once again examining the idea of child abuse in a close-knit social sphere. Ex-teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is working in a nursery whilst negotiating custody of his teenage son Markus (Losse Fogelstrøm) and trying to piece his life back together. In the wake of a bitter divorce, he has a group of friends with whom he shares a brotherly camaraderie, a new relationship is budding with nursery co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport). He is good at his job, a favourite playmate of the children. However, it is his affectionate treatment of his charges that causes problems to arise.
When Lucas finds the daughter of his best friend, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), sitting on the pavement whilst the sounds of her parents arguing can be heard issuing from the house, he offers to walk her to nursery, an offer which is well received by parents and child alike. Finding in Lucas a familiar and friendly figure with a sympathetic ear, Klara forms a childish crush, presenting him with a heart she has made as a token of her regard. Lucas gently indicates that her affections are misguided. Hurt, Klara tells Lucas’s superior that he has exposed himself to her, seizing on ideas of adult anatomy gleaned from the adolescent banter of her elder brother and his friends. Understandably, the teacher informs the children’s parents and the authorities, and almost more quickly than is credible, Lucas’s life begins to unravel. The community which hitherto had acted as an extended family to him are quick to believe the accusation, clinging to the idea that children usually tell the truth and that men have a capacity for depravity.
The power of The Hunt comes not so much from the plot itself, but the rapid dissolution of seemingly solid relationships within the community; once the suspicions of the nursery staff are revealed to the children’s parents, it is only a matter of days before Lucas is completely ostracised from those he once called friends. He is shunned, threatened, and avoided; even Theo renounces their friendship, unable as he is to eliminate his doubt of Lucas’s innocence or to question the truthfulness of his daughter. Indeed, true to its name, Vinterberg’s film quickly takes the form of a witch hunt, Lucas’s situation becoming ever more precarious as the townsfolk convince themselves of the truth of Klara’s story.
Lucas becomes isolated even amongst those whom he recently counted as friends and accordingly, a sense of paranoia envelopes the community; they are united in their disgust, going so far as to beat him up and to throw stones at the windows of his house. The film effectively draws a parallel between Lucas’s situation and that of the deer which he and his friends hunt for sport. Mikkelsen is rarely out of shot and the film employs frequent close-ups. In addition to showing every nuance of emotion on his face, these convey the sense of claustrophobia the hunted Lucas feels in his social isolation, a feeling that is further emphasised through the counterpointing of the hunt for Lucas and that of the deer. The latter event also, of course, offers the director the opportunity to provide beautiful shots of rural Denmark, contrasting open spaces with the claustrophobia of the village witch hunt.
The Hunt is a return to form for Vinterberg, offering a sensitive examination of the fragility of trust and also a reflection on the sometimes awkward relationship between adult men and children that in the media seems to be locked into a pattern of extremes: disavowal or witch hunts