“Being too civilized is not always good.”
“I’m lost,” says little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), her face tilted up to look at Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen). When he asks after her parents, five-year-old Klara tries to reconstruct how she’s arrived at this spot, on the sidewalk outside a local market in the small Danish town where they live. “I forgot to look where I was going,” she says quietly, “All of a sudden, I was here.” Ah well, Lucas smiles, he’ll take her home. And so they walk, hand in hand, framed in a long shot, a long road stretching behind and before them.
The scene comes early in The Hunt (Jagten), establishing the trust between Lucas and Klara (whose parents are, in fact, his close friends) as well as a vague, entirely familiar awkwardness. When they arrive at her home Klara dad and mum, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing) spend less time worrying about how she wandered off than Lucas’ current distress, owing to an ongoing custody battle over his teenaged son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm). “Everything’s fine,” Lucas insists, the camera panning across the kitchen from one man’s face to the other, even as Theo, his friend since childhood, observes, “I can tell when you’re lying, your eye is twitching.”
And so The Hunt is underway. On one, most obvious level, the film is about lying, a plot point and theme initiated when, a few scenes later, Klara lies about an encounter with Lucas, sort of saying that she’s seen his erect penis, by mimicking a phrase she’s heard from her older brother Torsten (Sebastian Bull Sarning) and his rowdy friends one afternoon. But the film is also about how lying is perceived and assumed by others. The adults who hear Klara’s story believe it right away, unable to imagine she would lie, and so mount something of a “witch hunt” against Lucas, who has otherwise and previously been a model citizen, a beloved assistant at Klara’s kindergarten, not to mention a great father and trusted friend.
While Theo supposes he can “know” when Lucas is lying, the film makes the more complicated that lying is not always visible or intentional. Klara’s begins with a moment of upset, a perception of rejection that she’s not nearly old enough to sort out. Once she blurts out the charge, the adults around her — first the kindergarten principal Grethe (Susse Wold), then Ole (Bjarne Henriksen), a therapist friend Grethe brings in to question the child — become eager to help but also to shape her story to fit their own expectations. As Ole sits across from the child in a tiny room, helping her with details (“Did you touch it? Did something white come out of it?”), the camera frames them separately, the handheld camera making each close-up uneasy. In Klara’s shots, Grethe occasionally hovers in the background, sometimes in focus and sometimes not, her distress a visceral effect, her face blurred and her eyes averted.
Here the film doesn’t so much indict Klara as suggest how she’s cornered, in a different way than Lucas. Young, poised, and a little unnerving, she’s obviously less able than adults to make judgments, but she’s also the one figure, apart from Lucas, who has a sense of what happened or didn’t. Klara tries a couple of times to retract the charge (I”I just said something foolish”), but once word is out, no adult can backtrack, can imagine an alternative story. These adults include Lucas’ new and distinctly beautiful girlfriend, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport). Also an assistant at the kindergarten, she first resists the group pressure created by her and Lucas’ mutual colleagues, then succumbs, at least in his eyes, when she asks him to confirm his innocence to her.
His misreading — if that’s what it is — is not so acute or as consequential as that of his accusers, however. When Marcus arrives on his doorstep, Lucas welcomes the support, but otherwise leaves the boy to manage his own emotional upset, this especially when Lucas is dragged off in handcuffs. The cascading hysterias here lead to one heavy-handed point after another, coming to a kind of head when Marcus heads off to Klara’s house to question her, to make her tell “the truth.”
That he’s a child himself is lost on every adult in a house full of holiday revelers. As they descend on him, the camera pitches from living room sofa to doorway to driveway, as one man after another pushes the boy about, in a bit of madness that ends when one father actually punches Marcus to the ground and they send him off to walk home down the same road Lucas once walked with Klara, bloodied and bruised.
The assault on Marcus is shot in a way that recalls the film’s first scene, in which Lucas and Theo and this group of other dads are gathered in the woods, bonding over a deer hunt and other manly activities (hiking, drinking, swimming naked). Too obviously, the boy — and by extension, his father — is here the prey, and the men’s boisterous behavior is here monstrous rather than merely crude. That the men (and their wives) are so horrified by trauma and also so able and willing to impose it on another child is one of the film’s most terrible and terrifying insights.
Marcus’ face in this scene — as he’s enraged and inarticulate toward Klara, as he’s frightened and furious at the sudden mob of equally inarticulate adults — does more effective emotional work than The Hunt‘s occasionally contrived and overbearing moments, scenes in which Lucas is berated or his dog goes missing, in which guns are wielded not as metaphors of masculine prowess, but as plain instruments of violence. The movie underlines repeatedly the Lucas’ sense of hardship and loss, effects surely magnified by Mikkelsen’s face, famously angular and strangely beautiful.
But if The Hunt is Lucas’ story, concerned with his righteous grievance and his lack of recourse in the face of hysteria, the lingering tragedy has to do with children, all of them. As they’re being raised up into a community premised on assumptions and lies, you can only feel worried for them.