It has been said that there is no such thing as a depressing film, only good films and bad films. Good films (with bleak subject matter) do not depress you, but instead serve the purpose of reaffirming your belief in great film-making and creative art. And bad films (with unbearably joyful subject matter) do ‘depress’ you, as your arse gets sore for two hours and you have to contend with the fact that such crap is made by studios and financially rewarded by the public.
I do (generally) hold the above to be true. But The Hunt comes close to being an exception. It is a punch to the stomach of the viewer – a punch that lands after about twenty minutes, and continues to land for the following ninety. It utterly winds you, and stays with you afterwards, leaving you shattered for hours. And it’s superb.
Mads Mikkelson – unrecognisable from Le Chiffre or Hannibal – is Lucas, a nursery school teacher in small-town Denmark. He has a great rapport with the children, and this is reciprocated by them. This is particularly the case with one child, Klara, coincidentally the daughter of Lucas’ best friend. Lucas and Klara develop a strong mutual affection. They are both quietly-spoken, and somewhat alone. Klara seems distant from the other children and her parents constantly bicker and argue, while Lucas himself is recently divorced and his son lives with his mother.
But then, Klara tells a story, of a sexual discrepancy from Lucas. To her it is probably only a sequence of words not meant to reveal any truth. Her language has been influenced by her lewd older brother.
Lucas meanwhile has been a well-liked, trusted member of the community. But his character has been slandered by a passing story by a young girl. Her parents vouch for her, affirming that she “never lies”. But they had ignored before, and will ignore her again when she reneges on her story. Instead, words are put in her mouth, and psychologists read her actions to affirm their own version of events.
The film focuses on the mass hysteria which breaks out rapidly. Early on, Lucas is told “We’re not jumping to conclusions. We’ll work things out”. Instead, what breaks out is a case of Chinese whispers. The accusations become worse, and each person is more certain than the last that he is guilty. The town becomes an echo chamber of exaggerations.
The direction of the film is bleak and ominous. At the film’s zenith, even after the police have released Lucas and declared his innocence, he is unable to complete a simple trip to the supermarket. The employees turn on him, violently. The pain he feels, and that we feel for him, is exceptional. We want to reach out and react for Lucas, to throw a punch for him. But he knows that a reaction will only exacerbate the issue.
The manner in which the town begins to turn on an innocent individual, who has no escape from the mass hysteria, is somewhat reminiscent of Dogville (2003), by Vinterberg’s Danish dogme partner-in-crime Lars Von Trier. There is a shared view that humanity and society can turn on itself, a black view of human nature. But for Dogville’s merits – of which there are many – it feels far less real than The Hunt, possibly due to the (lack of) set design, and so the pain is numbed.
That is not the case for The Hunt. In the end, The Hunt is not a depressing film. It merely crushes and suffocates you instead. And it is remarkable for that.