Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: The Hunt

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all movies I see between now and April 27th.

When I was in college I worked on an island off the coast of New Hampshire during the summers, and to make a couple extra bucks, I babysat a four-year-old towhead named Nicky. He was the son of the island's Russian-born music director. I got along with the kid and he was awful cute when he wasn't being a brat. One of those times he was being a brat, however, I thought I would teach him a lesson about taking care of his toys by throwing one of them in the trash. He really lost it and made a big scene, and I immediately had this dreadful thought:

What does anyone walking by think just happened?

I had this terrible flash about what Nicky could say to someone, if he were feeling vindictive towards me -- lies he could make up that would tarnish the parts of my reputation I could never untarnish. After that I was careful not to intentionally upset him again.

Watching Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt brought the remembrance of those irrational fears back to me ... and made me realize perhaps they weren't so irrational.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works at a kindergarten in a small Danish town, a last-ditch option after the school that employed him as a teacher had to close its doors. He never does anything so inflammatory as pretend to throw away a child's toy. All he does is rebuff the innocent advances of a young girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who kisses him on the lips as an expression of her confused fondness for her father's best friend. Embarrassed at having to take back the toy heart she shoved into Lucas' pocket, which he suggests she give to her parents or a boy at school, she tells the school principal that she "hates" Lucas and that he's "ugly." Her confusion is exacerbated by the fact that her brother's friend recently showed her a picture of an erect penis on his iPad, so she compulsively utters that Lucas has a penis and that it "points upward."

Uh oh.

In the escalating storm of suspicion and accusation that follows, Klara tries to recant her story, but by this point the adults believe she's just withering under the attention and trying to protect a person who has gotten into her head. Things go from bad to worse for our poor accused pedophile, who can't ever find the exact right way to protest his innocence -- because frankly, there isn't one.

Some of the best films of recent years -- and two of my last three year-end favorites, A Separation and Beyond the Hills -- present impossible situations where no one person is truly in the wrong. The Hunt may now be added to that list. None of the characters, when confronted with the evidence before them, reacts to the apparent act of sexual abuse in a way that is not, on some level, morally defensible. If there is any "villain" to this piece, it would have to be Klara, for missing a good opportunity to unambiguously proclaim Lucas' innocence. But just as you couldn't indict a five-year-old girl for even the most openly ruinous of intentions, neither can she be trusted to have credible second thoughts. You must believe her if she suggests, even in the half nods and incomplete thoughts of a child, that there was misconduct, and you must also not believe her if she then decides she made it all up. The motivations to tell the latter lie are much clearer, one would think, than to tell the former. Therefore, the moment the damning statement escapes her lips, the damage is done.

Mikkelsen is a revelation as the hopeless accused, but that doesn't mean there isn't something frustrating about him. As his situation deteriorates, you want to shake him, throttle him until he comes up with a way to defend himself that doesn't suggest the possibility of guilt. Is he feeling guilt for not having disclosed that the child kissed him? Could he have disclosed it in a way that didn't invite suspicion on him right then and there? And so The Hunt also explores something universal and tragic: Sometimes just being accused makes us feel the guilt of the sin we were supposed to have committed. 

Vinterberg presents his story with a bracing straightforwardness and a wonderful knack for foreshadowing. As it would be difficult to go in to The Hunt without knowing what it's about, the opening scenes shrewdly play on the audience's worst fears. As Lucas arrives at school on a typical November day, the children crouch in various hiding spots around the playground, appearing to genuinely fear his arrival. Instead of this being a story told in flashback, however, Vinterberg reveals that the children are planning a sneak attack against their teacher, with whom they engage in regular horseplay.

Moments later, when Lucas is reluctantly compelled to help a young boy wipe his bottom after using the toilet, we recognize that a misunderstanding surrounding sexual abuse need not a girl with an active imagination to take its pernicious toll. Those who work with children are always barely clinging to their good names, placing them every day in hands that don't understand them, and are too small to hold them.   

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