It was just one small innocent lie, but, once people start to believe it, it topples one man’s life upside down, and his life becomes a living purgatory as a result. Through the unjust ordeal of its ordinary hero, Danish movie “The Hunt” delves into a dark side of human nature involving misguided conviction and savage mob mentality, and its story is both maddening and engrossing to observe. Being accused of a heinous crime he did not commit, he becomes the target of malice and hostility from his friends and his neighbours, and he comes to learn in a hard way that the mark does not go away easily from their sight even though the accusation against him has no solid base at all.
The life of Lucas(Mads Mikkelsen) has been nice and comfortable before that happens. He is a kindergarten teacher who recently moves back to his hometown after his divorce, and, except that he is in a minor conflict with his ex-wife on the custody of his teenager son Marcus(Lasse Fogelstrøm), everything is pretty fine to him. He always has his friends and his family members near him, and we see them enjoying their deer hunt season together at the beginning. In the kindergarten where he works, he is popular with his boys, and he is also close to one of the employees, Nadja(Alexandra Rapaport).
The trouble in question begins with an innocent misbehavior of a girl in the kindergarten, Klara(Annika Wedderkopp). It is apparent that this little girl has a crush on Lucas, but Lucas only treats her as his close friend’s daughter while oblivious to her feeling. After her little expression of affection is ‘rejected’ by Lucas, she impulsively tells a lie about Lucas to the principal out of pique, and the principal is naturally disturbed by Klara’s lie, which accuses Lucas of sexual molestation.
As a consequence, the things we usually expect from such a circumstance quickly follow. The counselor is called, and the principal and the counselor ask Klara whether what she said is true or not. The principal, more convinced about Lucas’ guilt after that private interview, notifies the parents of the possibility of more sexual abuses. The kids start talking about what Lucas did to them, and he is eventually fired as being investigated by the local police, and his neighbours and friends become not friendly to him any more.
While it is clear that Lucas is wrongfully accused, the movie also shows the understandable human reactions from the town people angry about him. As we recently witnessed from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the sexual molestation on minor is serious felony which damages not only the victim but also the victim’s family, and the complex reaction of Theo(Thomas Bo Larsen), Lucas’ friend and Klara’s father, during one scene is exactly how any father will react as a dad shocked and confused and angered by what he hears from others. He wants to believe his friend, but he cannot possibly ignore a dreadful possibility of his dear daughter sexually abused by a man who has been his friend.
Nevertheless, what Theo and others in the town do to Lucas is pretty cruel and foolish to say the least. Focusing on the human behaviors surrounding the case rather than its investigation(we only hear about the progress indirectly from the characters from time to time), the director Thomas Vinterberg and his co-writer Tobias Lindholm show us how much our minds can be susceptible to suggestion and blindfolded by resulting bias. Gradually grasping what damage she unintentionally causes to her teacher, Klara later tells what she previously described never happened, but the adults, already fully convinced by their conclusion only based on what she and other kids said, do not believe her(they think her trauma causes memory loss). Even when the legal investigation reveals that the accusations against Lucas are unreliable for many reasons, they firmly believe that children always tell the truth, while overlooking another important fact about children; in some circumstances, they also can lie just like us and they can do it quite well.
How this misguided view of the town people wrecks Lucas’ daily life is depicted with realistic approach in the film, and it is really chilling to see how the community savagely stomps on its marked man’s spirit. While they are not turned into a lynch mob eager to burn him alive, Lucas’s daily life becomes increasingly difficult as he becomes an unwelcomed pariah to the people he has known. At least his affluent family can support him legally and financially during this very difficult time, but he still has to face the thinly covered hostility in his town whenever he goes out. Feeling isolated and ostracized and terrorized day by day, he feels more frustrated and angered as a wronged man, but he knows well that there is nothing he can do except enduring it.
For his stoic but harrowing portrayal of a tormented man struggling against a wrong accusation, Mads Mikkelsen deservedly received Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival early in the last year. Although being outraged by the injustice hurled at him, Lucas tries to endure it while maintaining his calm attitude, but he only finds his frustration continuously accumulating as the time goes by, so we eventually get an emotionally intense scene during the town church meeting on Christmas Eve. There are many painful moments in the movie besides that memorable scene, and Mikkelsen’s powerful performance delivers more than what is demanded during these scenes to effectively convey us pains and torments behind his cool reticent face.
The supporting actors deftly support Mikkelsen with their believable realistic performances. Lasse Fogelstrøm is Lucas’ son Marcus, who also experiences what his father is going through for being near him and rightfully becomes infuriated by that. Thomas Bo Larsen is a man getting conflicted because of conscience and friendship, and his wordless exchanges with Mikkelsen during one crucial moment eventually result in a small but important turn in the story. As a young girl who causes everything in the story, Annika Wedderkopp is impressive with her well-rounded performance as a three-dimensional child character, and she is especially good during an early scene where her character is very confused and nervous about what to tell in front of two adult characters.
While showing one of our worst sides through its insightful human drama, “The Hunt” also shows us that we are capable of doing right things when the time comes, but that looks like a small consolation compared to what has been done to a man who should have been presumed to be innocent until everything would become clear. Through his ordeal, Lucas comes to learn a lot about what his people are capable of, and that is something he will not forget easily even if he chooses to ignore it. He is still a marked man, and there is always somebody willing to remind him of that.