Following a tough divorce, 40-year-old Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) has a new girlfriend, a new job and is in the process of reestablishing his relationship with his teenage son, Marcus. But things go awry. Not a lot. Just a slight comment. A random lie. And as the snow falls and the Christmas lights are lit, the lie spreads like an invisible virus. The shock and mistrust gets out of hand, and the small community suddenly finds itself in a collective state of hysteria, while Lucas fights a lonely fight for his life and dignity.

An unsettling saga with no easy villains.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL / MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Mads Mikkelsen’s Cannes acting win is probably the first of many accolades the versatile Dane will receive for his pent-up performance as Lucas, a kindergarten teacher who becomes the target of collective hysteria about paedophilia, in Tomas Vinterberg’s outstanding The Hunt (Jagten).

His even-tempered everyman is brought to brink when a baseless whisper campaign causes his friends and neighbours to brandish hypothetical pitchforks, intent on driving out the sex offender they deem to be living in their midst.

The start of Lucas’ troubles is the simple act of deflecting a child’s misplaced affection. The girl is profoundly mortified by Lucas’ rejection of a kiss (he’s both her favourite teacher and her daddy’s best friend), and she retreats to a darkened room to sulk. When her furious embarrassment finds a sympathetic ear, she runs with it. Reflexively, she equates Lucas with the worst of what exists in her unprocessed arsenal of Terrible Things (mostly gleaned from exposure to her teen brother’s X-rated search results). Cue a couple of leading questions and Lucas is branded a sex pest and thrown to the lions without charge or right of reply.

There’s not an ounce of fat in Vinterberg’s screenplay; economical in the best of ways, it interrogates the complexities of the 'thought as a virus’ conceit with a flair that takes it beyond the realm of a standard procedural. In spite of his critique of the rush to judgement, Vinterberg denies the audience the comfort of rallying against an easy 'villain’; in fact, The Hunt is all the more unsettling for what it says about the calcifying effects of good intentions and due process on the posture of an innocent man. (The leading questions asked of the apparent victim have a fictionalised air about them but, in fact, all of that dialogue is lifted from actual transcripts.)

Fans of Danish cinema would recall Jacob Theusen’s equally gripping Accused (2005), in which a daughter’s claims of incest tear a family apart. Where that film’s tension rested on the question of the father’s guilt, here Vinterberg takes pains to establish his lead’s integrity from the outset, so we have no doubt of his innocence. Thus, alleviated of the inconvenient distraction of the '...did he?’ question, we’re left hamstrung as we witness the ease with which procedures aimed at protecting the Best Interests of the Child, can, with slap-dash implementation, have the converse effect.


Watch 'The Hunt'

Saturday 11 September, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Monday 13 September, 12:55am on SBS World Movies

Denmark, 2012
Genre: Drama
Language: Danish
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp

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