Like many directors who make a big splash with an early feature, Thomas Vinterberg did not have an easy time of it thereafter. And while we don’t particularly understand the critical opprobrium heaped on, for example, “Dear Wendy,” a film this writer admires, it’s clear that he has not fully lived up to the potential on display in his landmark 1998 film, “The Celebration.” After all, that film not only launched his career into the arthouse stratosphere, it launched a whole movement, and has arguably never been bettered as the definitive iteration of what Dogme should and could be.
Interestingly, “The Hunt,” which played this week at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, returns to themes explored in that earlier film, specifically the breakdown of interpersonal relationships under the pressure of revelatory accusations of sexual abuse. But here Vinterberg is unconstrained by Dogme, er dogma, so the film is in a style more classical than experimental, more deliberately staged and, frankly, more beautifully shot than “The Celebration.” However if you’re worried that this might mean a loss of immediacy, let us quickly disavow you: “The Hunt” is quite one of the most brilliantly unsettling, tension-laden films we’ve seen in a long time, and it achieves this by allying us so completely with its lead that the nightmarishly unjust situation he finds himself in becomes our own. In fact, by the end of our screening, people on all sides of us had their hands steepled in front of their faces as though they were watching a horror. Or rather, we think they did. Our own fingers may have been partially blocking our view.
To its credit, the film attempts no did-he-didn’t-he tricksiness. Instead we know from the outset that Lucas is innocent of the charges laid against him, and so we get to experience his hurt, his incredulity, his incomprehension at his gradual alienation from friends and ostracisation from the community, with a similar sense of helplessness and impotence. It has been said elsewhere that the kind of paralysis he experiences is one of the film’s flaws -- that in real life, he would be lawyering up or leaving town or, well anything but the kind of martyr-like behaviour that Lucas displays here. But honestly, we never felt that for a minute. Put it down to Mikkelsen’s consummate talent, but every moment of inaction on his part feels totally honest -- he is a good man stunned into passivity, who has no secret arsenal to raid when he discovers that innocence and decency are not adequate defences.
Without wishing to spoil anything, the final coup de grace, that can either be seen as ambivalent (whodunnit?) or definitive (nope, we cannot go back to the way we were; sometimes things are broken beyond fixing) is simply the last in a long, long line of disquieting, not to say upsetting moments. And if the film were not put together with such skill, it might feel exploitative of the audience in that regard. But it’s a smart film too, with just enough glimpses of warmth and humanity amid the bleakness to keep it compelling, rather than depressing. For anyone with even a halfway developed sense of justice “The Hunt” may prove stressful, frustrating, even enraging, but it’s also an unbelievably effective watch, that, if nothing else signals an undeniable return to form for Vinterberg, and yet another blistering performance from Mikkelsen. See it, if only for the debates it will cause afterward. [A-]