Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg)

A mad gaze.

For the sake of posterity, I will dare state that this is my first Thomas Vinterberg film (it has always been all Lars von Trier for me), and though I'm not yet fully familiar with his style as a whole, I think it's already fair enough to believe that his polished visual approach for this one is already many years removed from his Dogme 95 roots. But what "The Hunt" lacks in showcasing its director's cinematic trademarks it more than makes up in its intense exploration of everything morally gray. There has been this widely held belief that the things children say are almost always true. Although "The Hunt", even in itself, can't dispute this very fact, what it really wants to say is that once a rare white lie comes out of a kid's mouth, that of which involves you as the make-believe perpetrator of an abhorrent deed, prepare for hell.

Set in a sleepy town populated by people who know each other like family, "The Hunt" is as innocuous as any film can be. And to add yet another dose of harmlessness to this calm and collected scenario, it stars Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher named Lucas who does nothing all day but play with his diminutive students. Among the kids is a cute girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), daughter of Lucas' best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who is as mysterious as she is irresistibly adorable. Lucas often walks her to school, and Theo does not seem to mind. One day, though, after Klara inexplicably kissed Lucas in the lips and was subsequently rejected, she then unexpectedly concocted a story detailing how Lucas has shown her his 'willie' and then proceeded to molest her. Shocked and distressed, the school's principal and also the entire community, without even thinking twice, immediately turned their back on poor Lucas.

Ostracized and alone, Lucas, aside from being socially banished from the town he grew up in, also becomes a victim of mass hysteria that he never could have foreseen. Slowly, even the boys who he often plays with in the playground start to craft their own anecdotes of how they were sexually abused by Lucas, even going as far as vividly describing the minute details of their teacher's rustic household. Like a more infuriating, teeth-gnashing small town version of "Rashomon", "The Hunt" is an even trickier film about subjectivity and perception mainly because the bending of facts comes from innocent children who do not even have any stake on anything. If nothing else, it is a grating essay on how a person's deeply-held beliefs about perception can destroy the life of another. Who said innocence is bliss?

Mads Mikkelsen, who most of us will recognize as Le Chiffre in Daniel Craig's very first Bond outing, is utterly believable as a mild-mannered teacher who, in some ways, is content in living a very simple life. Though one must only look at his face to realize that he's the perfect actor to play any psychotic character (hence why he was cast as Hannibal Lecter in the on-going TV series), Mikkelsen has still made me believe in this film that he can play a wronged everyman in such a way that you will back him fully no matter what he does, ala Dustin Hoffman in "Straw Dogs". And yes, this may be far-fetched, but I believe "The Hunt", as much as it is a quiet drama film, has borrowed elements from the western genre, specifically on how Mikkelsen's nursery teacher role closely mirrors the brash town outsiders guys like Clint Eastwood have played in countless gun-toting films in the past, but without the oozing bravado. And as with all western films, it is but necessary for the 'wronged outsider' to prove that he's worth the ounce of respect that his co-villagers owe him. Lucas may not be a gunslinger (well, his affinity for hunting does not count) in the mythical sense of the word, but he treads such a path towards vindication just the same. 

If the film portrays, in detail, how easy it is be put in utter disgrace based solely on a baseless accusation, it also deeply shows the difficulty of reclaiming respect after losing it overnight. Lucas learned it the hard way, and although it's easy to make amends with people, it is hard to re-tie the knot that was already severed. The film is by no means a thriller, but how it unfolds really does flirt with the conventions of the genre. There's also a certain kind of emotional impact in the film that makes it just as powerful a depiction of incorrect indictment as "Dancer in the Dark", which is coincidentally a film directed by Vinterberg's Dogme 95 co-pioneer, Lars von Trier.

"The Hunt", as with all slow-moving drama films of its kind, requires a considerable amount of patience. But at the same time, the film is also borderline humorous in its intense elicitation of anger that it almost literally asks for us viewers to control our collective fury as we watch Lucas' bleak attempt to prove everyone his innocence unravel in all its futility. As frustratingly polished as "The Hunt" may be for a film directed by a Dogme 95 luminary, its themes are still fairly consistent to the said film movement's loose collective intention to explore isolation and moral ambiguity in claustrophobic social settings. There is pure power hiding beneath the film's seemingly plain nature, and it will suck you in until you can only look at a lie, no matter how harmless and white, whether by a sickly octogenarian or a naïve child, as something that truly destroys.

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