One of the most enjoyable aspects of exploring foreign films is seeing familiar stories or styles from Hollywood given a fresh twist in a new setting. For example: The Hunt, a Hitchockian thriller in the most traditional sense, not only because it draws from one of Hitchcock’s favorite set-ups (the wrongfully accused man trying to clear his name), but because it builds suspense slowly and assuredly. Like a Hitchcock film, you begin watching sitting comfortably in your chair and end stiffened in discomfort and suspense, realizing only at the conclusion how much you were taken in by the simplest of stories.
Simple is the literal definition in this case, as celebrated Danish director Thomas Vinterberg is a co-founder (along with Lars von Trier, a fellow Dane) of the “Dogme 95” filmmaking movement, which seeks to “create filmmaking based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology.” One could say that thrillers like The Hunt stand in stark contrast to similar American fare because of the language and setting, but you’d have a hard time convincing me it’s not also because European filmmakers—going back to Hitchcock—have much more patience in developing suspense and letting plots naturally unravel.
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Producers: Sisse Graum Jørgensen, Morten Kaufmann, Thomas Vinterberg
Writers: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg
Cinematographer: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Music: Nikolaj Egelund
Editors: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Anne Østerud
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larson, Annika Wedderkopp, Lasse Fogelstrøm, Susse Wold, Anne Louise Hassing, Lars Ranthe, Alexandra Rapaport
Premiere: May 20, 2012 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 12, 2013
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
There may be no better example from the last year than the difference between A Hijacking, a Danish thriller about Somali piracy that was arguably 2013’s most underappreciated film (written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, another Dane who co-wrote The Hunt with Vinterberg), and Captain Phillips, the overwrought action flick by an English filmmaker who is increasingly, and unfortunately, adapting his style to accommodate American audiences and attention spans. The point is that if you’re not accustomed to the lean style of European suspense thrillers, you may not fully appreciate The Hunt. In that case, appreciate it for an entirely different reason: it offers a new, albeit rather disturbing, take on the wrongly accused character trope. Unlike Hitchcock’s classics and recent American favorites (The Fugitive, The Shawshank Redemption, The Hurricane, The Thin Blue Line, et. al.), the main character in The Hunt is not accused of murder.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a kindergarten teacher in a small Danish town, a friendly community where kids call teachers by their first names and local gossip defines daily interactions. Though popular with his students and co-workers, Lucas is a divorced dad who’s never quite been there for his now teenage son. In other words, he’s a bit of a loner, which does not bode well for him when he suddenly finds himself accused of molesting a young pupil in his class who is the daughter of his best friend. Shocked to the point of numbness and emotional paralysis, Lucas is defenseless against the accusation and submits to the ostracism that follows from the close-knit community. His home his vandalized, he loses his job, and even his local grocer bans him from the store. As the increasingly concerned observer to his plight, you’re desperate to determine what exactly happened, what will go wrong next, and how Lucas will ever get out of this waking nightmare. You’re also left convicted of your own real-life interactions with, and judgments of, people who have been accused of despicable deeds (a semester long sociology course could be built around this story).
The performance by Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas can only be described as extraordinary. Typically we learn that characters are wrongfully accused because we see the actual perpetrators commit a crime. As such, the characters don’t have to earn our sympathy. In The Hunt, however, just enough fog exists to make you initially wonder, even possibly doubt, Lucas’ innocence. He has to clear his name not only within his own story, but to the audience as well. Mikkelsen carries this tremendous load and even makes Lucas a more multi-dimensional character than he probably is in the screenplay. It is deservedly Mikkelsen’s most acclaimed performance to date, and a calling card for his next leading role.
The same can be said for Vinterberg, who after two decades of filmmaking has found his name attached to The Hunt as a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Even though the film did not take home the gold, it stands as evidence of a very promising Danish film scene that will hopefully produce more classic thrillers of this caliber.