When he was a young child, director Alfred Hitchcock was sentto the police station with a note from his father. A desk sergeant read the note and locked young Hitchcock in a cell for several minutes. He was eventually let out and was told by the officer this is what happened to boys who did bad things. This incident stayed with Hitchcock his entire life and provided a central theme to his filmography- that of the “wrong man,” an innocent man out to prove his innocence, which was the foundation for light escapist fare such as North by Northwest (1959), The 39 Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942). Hitchcock treated this theme most seriously in The Wrong Man (1956), the only Hitchcock film based on a true story. The film tells of a New York musician named Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who was mistaken for criminal.
Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt can be seen as a companion film to Hitchcock’s overlooked thriller, as well as an extension of Hitchcock’s favourite theme. The film concerns a Kindergarten teacher named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) who, after a remark by Klara, one of the Kindergarten children, is accused of molesting her. The small Danish town in which Lucas lives then turns against him. The title can refer to the hunting by Lucas that occurs in the woods but the deeper significance of the title refers to how the story of the film becomes that of a modern day witch hunt- a The Crucible for the 21st Century.
While we understand the town’s disgust at the crime they believe Lucas committed- child molestation is a despicable crime- but the film shows how morality and outrage at horrible acts can slowly turn us in to monsters ourselves. There is a turning point- albeit a highly manipulative one- in the story where the town crosses a line and loses our sympathy. Even so the film never forgets these are human beings. This is what makes the film so unsettling. How far can seemingly sane people go when confronted with what they view as one evil man?
The film also asks the question, as did The Wrong Man, of what an innocent man can do when he is accused of something he didn’t do. It’s not as easy as saying “I’m innocent.” In the court of public opinion, once the seed of distrust is planted, it grows until it takes over the heart and mind. And why would Klara lie? I’m sure some will criticize the film for showing a young girl to be untrustworthy regarding matters of sexual abuse. But I don’t believe the film is suggesting we should never listen to children when it pertains to this crime. Rather, the film is showing us one remark can set off a chain reaction that can’t be stopped.
I like that before Lucas comes under fire we get a little of his back-story- he’s a divorcee who wants his teenage son Marcus to live with him and not his mother. This back-story adds some texture to Lucas’ character and makes him more than a blank slate victim. The fact Klara is the daughter of Lucas’ best friend Theo adds to the anguish of the film. How can Theo ever look at his friend the same way? It’s devastating and the shows the depths of pain Klara’s remark makes.
It’d be easy for the film to be played histrionically- and there are several very heightened and intense moments- but the film knows how to restrain itself- due to Vinterberg’s minimalist visual style as well as Mikkelsen’s performance. There’s a scene in a church near the end where we’re allowed to take in Lucas’s emotions- just through Mikkelsen’s wearied and broken down face.
As The Hunt enters its final scene we begin to think we’re in for a neat ending. But the final moments and image suggests the shadow of the previous year will always be there. There’s no turning back from the feelings we experience and the events we go through. They’ll always be there- regardless of guilt or innocence.