It’s very rare for “Robin’s Underrated Gems” to cover films which have been released in the past few years, as they’re often still fresh in people’s minds and don’t need to be championed. However, sometimes, you’ll sit down and watch a new film which completely blows you away and you feel the need to spread the word to everyone who listens. Such was the case with The Hunt, a Danish drama which premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at this year’s Academy Awards. The Hunt wound up losing the Oscar to an Italian movie called The Great Beauty and while I have not seen the latter film, it’s hard to imagine it being better than The Hunt. The Hunt has received great acclaim and word of mouth from those who have seen it (it currently sits at #125 on the IMDb’s “Top 250” list), but somehow, I feel that it has not received the exposure it deserves in North America, so I think it’s my duty to give it a full review here. The star of The Hunt is Mads Mikkelsen, who garnered his first exposure in North America by playing the villainous Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and can now be seen portraying Hannibal Lecter in the acclaimed TV series, Hannibal. The Hunt is a tremendous showcase for the actor and very few films have done a more effective job at depicting the horrors of being falsely accused and becoming the subject of a modern-day witch-hunt.
The protagonist of The Hunt is a kindergarten teacher named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who lives in a very small, close-knit community. Even though Lucas is divorced and engaged in a heated custody battle for his teenage son, he is a very good-hearted, well-liked figure who genuinely loves working with children. One of the kids in Lucas’ class is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who happens to be the daughter of Lucas’ best friend. Klara seems to have a crush on Lucas and tries to kiss him on the mouth at one point, but Lucas is very careful about making it clear that this is inappropriate. This makes Klara angry and after she is briefly exposed to a pornographic picture by her teen brother, this sets off a chain of events which eventually destroy Lucas’ life. Through a series of misunderstandings, Klara winds up telling the school principal that Lucas indecently exposed herself to her. Once word of this reaches Klara’s parents and the rest of the community, it isn’t long before other parents start believing that Lucas sexually abused their children as well. Lucas winds up losing his job, facing criminal prosecution, and is completely ostracized by the community. Even when the abuse allegations become more and more unbelievable and the evidence suggests Lucas is innocent, it makes no difference. It’s impossible for anyone in the community to believe that a little girl could have lied about something like this.
The Hunt is a truly harrowing look at what can happen when someone is falsely accused of being a pedophile. No crime generates more pure disgust than the sexual abuse of children and the very thought of it can have serious ramifications on people’s emotions and their judgment. Once the hysteria hits, children can easily be coached into believing they were sexually abused. Since a crime like indecent exposure is pretty much impossible to prove or disprove, it all comes down to “he said/she said” and of course, the community is not going to doubt the word of an innocent child. Sadly, the events in The Hunt have a lot of basis in reality. The 1980s were plagued by a moral panic called the “daycare sex abuse hysteria” where many innocent daycare workers and teachers were falsely accused of pedophilia. The stories would often take a turn into the absurd, with allegations of such things as Satanism and animal sacrifice, but once the initial accusation was made, it became impossible for the accused to break through the hysteria and convince anyone of their innocence. In The Hunt, there is no one person who is single-handedly responsible for what happens to Lucas, as he is victimized by the warped judgment of many people. When Klara realizes how bad things have gotten for Lucas, she makes an attempt to retract her claims, but by this point, the witch-hunt has spiraled out of control and no one will listen. The community refuses to believe that Lucas might be innocent and he cannot even go shopping at the local market without being harassed.
The Hunt works as well as it does because of a truly outstanding lead performance by Mads Mikkelsen. Of course, Mikkelsen is known for often playing creepy villains and that actually serves his role perfectly here. From the outset, it’s established that Lucas is a genuinely good person and completely innocent of all accusations against him, but because we associate Mikkelsen with his other creepy roles, you can almost understand why an entire community could suddenly believe the guy is a pedophile. Even after his entire world comes crashing down, Lucas refuses to surrender his dignity. Since The Hunt is such a downbeat film, it may sound strange to say this, but the scene where Lucas marches back into the supermarket to pay for his items after being kicked out is a moment which makes you want to cheer. The climactic sequence where Lucas refuses to hide from his accusers and attends a Christmas Eve service at the local church is a masterful showcase of acting from everyone involved. The director of The Hunt is Thomas Vinterberg, one of Denmark’s most prominent directors. Vinterberg’s most famous film is probably the 1998 family drama, The Celebration. While that movie explored the consequences of ignoring allegations of sexual abuse, The Hunt goes in the complete opposite direction by exploring the negative effects of false accusations. While it might not be the most upbeat cinematic experience, The Hunt is a masterful piece of filmmaking and one of the most powerful dramas of the past several years. You owe it to yourself to check it out and spread the word about how good it is.