Americans ought to know what a “moral panic” is - in the age of Facebook we seem to have them, on a nearly hourly basis. Though it seems likely this review has been run down by events, as I’m writing this the current one consists of outrage and disgust over the antics of a former Disney Channel star turned pop singer on a video awards show that celebrates the sort of vapid pop music to which anyone over the age of 16 or so ought to be embarrassed to listen. Our social scares nourish a 24-hour news cycle, but the concept has been around since we started hunting the witches in our midst.
As described by sociologist Stanley Cohen in his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a moral panic occurs when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” We then take up our pitchforks against our designated folk devil, be it steroids in baseball, razor blades in Halloween apples, communist sympathizers, gays in the military or satanic child murderers.
Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt is a movie about a moral panic in a small Danish village. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (who won the Vulcain Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for this work) and obviously informed by the McMartin day-care center case (which touched off an irrational scare over alleged satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s and resulted in the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history), it is a movie of uncommon power about the evil that well-meaning people commit when given license by what they perceive as atrocity. It is about the way we can be puffed up by outrage, and how righteous it can feel to be cruel.
I wish that a lot more people would see it than will see it. I wish we weren’t so narrow in our tastes for diversion that any accurate description of the film seems more likely to dissuade than to entice. The Hunt is a fine realist drama in the Dogme 95 tradition, unsentimental but heartbreaking and at times hard to watch. It is a movie for grown-ups in that it describes a world that exists rather than the world as we would wish it or the world as a gaming system might render it.
It doesn’t seem such a bad world at first - we are introduced to the men of the village at the beginning of hunting season, indulging in the crazy bonding ritual of plunging naked into a cold lake. One of their number is our protagonist, a man named Lucas, played with remarkable precision by Mads Mikkelsen, an actor more Americans may recognize from his portrayal of a Bond villain (Casino Royale) or his current role as the title character in the television series Hannibal. We meet Lucas among his friends after he seems to have weathered some tough times. He is divorced and living alone, his wife having taken their teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom) away with her. He lost his teaching job when the local high school shut down, but has found employment in a local kindergarten. But it is not all bad with him, his charges adore him - they wait for his arrival at the school each day, to ambush him and engage in some rough and tumble play.
There is one child in particular, an intelligent but solitary child named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) who happens to be the daughter of Lucas’ best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen, who regularly collaborates with Vinterberg). Klara seems to believe she has a special relationship with Lucas, and she is stung when he admonishes her for an inappropriate kiss. In her pique, she announces to Lucas’ superior, a fluttery woman named Grethe (Susse Wold), that she hates him. A few leading questions later, Grethe comes to the conclusion that Lucas may have been the one who acted inappropriately. She calls Lucas in to talk to him about the situation, but she doesn’t feel she can give him any details about what is being alleged or who is doing the alleging. She suggests he take a few days off, until things get sorted out.
It is one of the great strengths of The Hunt that we know from the outset that Lucas is innocent. We understand that Klara has conflated separate events in her mind, and that she’s merely momentarily put out with her friend Lucas. But we also understand Grethe’s reluctance to discuss the situation with Lucas, and her conviction that “children don’t lie” about such matters is a widely held belief (even though its been demonstrated that sometimes children do tell adults what they believe the adults want to hear). A supervisor is called in to hear Klara’s story - he compounds the problem with more ham-handed questioning that assumes that Klara is reluctant to tell the truth. She is either ashamed or afraid of Lucas. The police are involved.
It is a small town, everyone knows the accusations against Lucas. Though Theo cannot imagine his friend as monster, his wife Agnes (Anne Louis Hassing) insists that no chances be taken with Klara’s welfare. She believes her child has told a damning story, and she doesn’t want Klara to have to relive the details. Again, her perspective is understandable: She won’t risk her child for her husband’s friendship.
Lucas is released by the police. They lack the evidence necessary to prosecute. He’s not cleared, and the townspeople are under no obligation to treat him as an innocent. His friend Bruun (Lars Ranthe) is not willing to believe the worst about Lucas and stands beside him. And Marcus supports his father, but no one else does.
The Hunt makes a feint toward a somewhat happy ending - Lucas regains the trust of Theo, and his old friends and hunting buddies seem to welcome him back into their fold. But the movie ends on an unresolved note, a clanging minor key chord of doubt that hangs frozen in the air.
The Hunt 90 Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lasse Fogelstrom, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe Director: Thomas Vinterberg Rating: R, for sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language Running time: 115 minutes In Danish and English with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 08/30/2013
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