NOTE: This piece contains spoilers.
The American imagination thrives on misinformation. Why was America’s invasion of Iraq sanctioned by so many in 2003? Because it was proposed that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction. Were supporters of the invasion sure? Chances are they weren’t, at bottom. But those in charge had a hunch. And that was, for some, good enough. Why was George Zimmerman declared innocent in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin? Because his jurors couldn’t prove he was guilty. Were his jurors sure he was innocent? Probably not. But in the absence of opposing evidence—or the reluctance to bring intuition to bear—they handed over their verdict. In the 1950s, why did McCarthyism stick in the public imagination, and not leave? For precisely the same reason—vast numbers of intellectually incurious Americans just weren’t sure. And the vision presented, in each case—of a nation of bad guys, of one bad guy who apparently provoked an officer, of a league of secretive bad guys who were overthrowing the government—was too delicious to resist. You wouldn’t necessarily think of The Hunt as a film that might speak to American life, whatever that is, but there is quite a bit in it that might appeal to the growing American longing for justice, denied perpetually by the seductiveness of counter-intuition, which grows like wildfire if allowed. This film is almost a fable about that very tendency. The film has an eerie quietness which, I’d like to think, grows out of the great simplicity of its story, one of alleged child abuse in a small town—but this silence also might suggest, to some American viewers, a highly focused portrait of daily life, the unreality of its struggles and tortures merely suggestive of the daily news, the silence of, well, truth.
Lucas is an assistant at a small school; though he was meant for a better position, taken from him when his previous school closed, he seems content with his lot. Played with a telling blankness by Mads Mikkelsen, the kind of blankness you know will develop into rage with time, Lucas is utterly at ease with children, the only sort of adult male who would fit comfortably at a school with an all-female staff, bouncing up and down like a cartoon character in early scenes. When he refuses the affections of little Klara, beautifully played by Annika Wedderkopp, she tells a naughty tale about him that, as all such tales do, grows in dimension. Because those in charge, namely the most repressed-seeming schoolmarm you could possibly imagine, brought to toe-curling life by Susse Wold, believe the child, because she is, after all, incredibly cute, and the subject of her stories is, after all, a man, Lucas is fired. But that’s really the least of it.
Lucas has many friends at the beginning of the film, but as it continues he finds he has only family on his side. The bluntness and immediacy with which he is punished is near-comic in its simplicity. The owner of the local grocery tells Lucas’ son, explicitly, that he isn’t wanted there, and neither is his father. Lucas is told, when he goes shopping, to leave the premises in simple, painful terms, and when he doesn’t comply, he’s beaten up and, quite literally, thrown out of the store. When he seeks refuge with his trusting and distinctively intelligent brother, all goes well until a huge stone flies through the kitchen window and his dog is murdered. The moral certainty of his accusers is timeless: from the crowds in M to the angry mobs in old Westerns to the villagers in Frankenstein, the cliché that strength in numbers masks a larger weakness receives signboard-sized illustration here.
Lucas becomes a rather degraded version of himself as his punishment settles in. He begins drinking far more than he used to. A romance he had started with a co-worker collapses when he tosses her out of his house (literally) after she expresses doubts about his innocence. His son comes to stay with him, the one bright spot in the decline, but then finds himself locked out of his house after Lucas is arrested. Towards the end of the film, Lucas staggers into a Christmas Mass, bruised and drunk, the opposite of the bland-seeming fellow he had been. And at this point, the allegory rises to a crescendo: humanity is capable of limitless castigation, if its mind sets to it. This sort of castigation knows no borders: it could be Trayvon Martin, killed under the suspicion of aggression, or it could be countless innocent Iraqi children, killed by mere association. Or, reaching back a little bit, American lives might be ruined on the basis of mere suspicion of “un-American” sentiments.
As the film continues, it calms itself down a bit—and at the end, Lucas even receives a pardon, of sorts, along with a reunion with Klara's once-furious father, who was his best friend before the controversy began. The film ends with a poignant moment, again all-too-relevant to what has become an increasingly American pattern of behavior in recent years. While he is out on a hunting expedition with the men who had cast him out less than a year previously, Lucas finds himself first dodging a bullet, and then staring into the crosshairs of a gun, aimed by an obscured assailant. The film leaves us here, as if to remind us that suspicion, irrationality and, ultimately punishment walk beside us all the time, waiting for the right moment to surface.Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.