Pedophilia is one of the few existing social taboos that you just cannot fuck around with. Even in the darkest, no-holds-barred alternative comedy, it’s rarely ever deemed an acceptable topic to riff on because there’s something horrifying about it that strikes us on a primal level. There’s a reason that pedophiles supposedly get taken down in prison before the snitches and it’s because the balance of power between an adult and a child is so one-sided, the effects so permanently ingrained on the always-innocent victim’s psyche, that breaching this unspoken social contract is so unimaginable that even the most hardened criminals would never consider it. Of course, this is all pretty much common knowledge — children are images of ourselves before our experiences in the cold, cruel world corrupt us, so obviously we’re fiercely protective of them — but because of this, pedophilia has always remained an exceptionally challenging topic to ponder, let alone discuss in a rational, collected manner. It’s always on the outskirts of public discourse; its evilness is assumed so we’d all rather just avoid the extreme discomfort of actually talking about it.
Tomas Vinterberg’s fascination with the topic is due not only to its intrinsic dramatic potency but also, more importantly, the unique way it strikes all of us (the audience and those around the accused in his films) at the very core of our being, a place tucked so safely away that even the perpetual media assault of violence and horror can’t phase it. Vinterberg’s raw and powerful debut, The Celebration, officially the first of the Dogme 95 films, dealt with the uncovering of past sexual abuse within an upper class family as various relatives tried to cover it up and ignore the son’s charge of repeated sexual abuse by his father at a family celebration. After a series of relative disappointments and a modest success with the potent drama Submarino, Vinterberg returns to unsettling territory of his first film, but while the central topic is similar, The Hunt is an entirely different beast in both tone and form, tackling the subject from an entirely different angle.
Where The Celebration was made within the rigid guidelines of the Dogme ’95 movement (only natural lighting and handheld camerawork, no off-screen music) and featured increasingly emotionally unhinged performances, the latter is slickly filmed from a cool distance and the protagonist, Mads Mikkelsen at his stoic best as Lucas, is not guilty of the charges made against him. As an assistant at an elementary school in the town he grew up in, Lucas (Mikkelsen) is struggling with a custody battle for his teenage son following a recent divorce and after kindly, yet firmly, rejecting his best friend Theo’s young daughter at school when she reveals she has a crush on him, the innocent rebuff takes the film into surprisingly dark and disturbing places. As Lucas’s rejection begins to take shape in young Klara’s mind, her brother briefly flashes her a picture of an erect penis for a laugh — a confusing sexual encounter which, along with the sting of Lucas’s recent snub (both of which, at age 5 or 6, she is too young to process), morph into an unclear comment made to her teacher about Lucas’s erect penis. As the investigation begins, Lucas is given the benefit of the doubt, but as Klara never outrightly refutes what she said, the town slowly begins to turn on Lucas in a methodical and quietly devastating fashion.
The film and Mikkelsen, who rightly won Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, are both remarkably controlled, tightly wound exercises in restraint. In a film where histrionics would be fully justified, such emotional outbursts are rare, saved for punctuations in the drama rather than leaned on like a crutch every step of the way. Instead of fighting the charges head-on, Lucas meets them with incredulity, denying them outright and looking his accusers in the eye daring them to believe a man they’ve known their whole life was capable of committing such an act. And while Lucas’s response is justified, the doubts of many of his closest friends and the increasing hostility of the townspeople are also equally understandable, despite its casting doubt on our own assumed stance of level-headed egalitarianism. For what is so striking and, for me, pretty damn powerful is not only the prospect that a good man could quite easily lose everything when a misunderstanding got out of hand, but rather the realism of townspeople’s shunning of Lucas despite his protestations of innocence.
In times where the unthinkable horrors seem to occur with more frequency and more shocking violence (the Sandy Hook shooting and the attack on a Norwegian youth camp come to mind), society becomes more guarded and judgmental and the depth of our morality is truly tested. These events are not general cases or hypotheticals, but affronts to humanity that cause reason and compassion to immediately bow to the uncontrollable raw power of anger, disgust, and revenge despite our best efforts. How many people normally opposed to the death penalty essentially said they would have gladly tied the noose on Adam Lanza or Anders Breivik after learning what they’d done? In The Hunt, the fact that Lucas’s innocence in never in doubt might have made it easy for the audience to take the high road, but Vinterberg casts the entire film in the muddled grey area where Lucas’s mistreatment is, while never excusable, is somehow at least understandable. And although Lucas’s suffering and despair is the film’s central focus, it is the characters who struggle with doubt (his girlfriend and especially Theo, who is permanently torn between his best friend and his daughter who he believes unable to lie) that provide the film’s most compelling commentary and take the film beyond the travails of a “wrong man” case and into the realm of the provocative and thought-provoking, placing the audience in the unenviable position of feeling both the unbridled rage of the accusers and the sheer despair of the accused. Through this duality, The Hunt has left me more shaken than any other film I’ve seen all year.