“People always work from the assumption that children are telling the truth.”
Kids really do say the darndest things! Popular kindergarten teacher Lucas finds this out the hard way after his life is shattered in The Hunt, an outstanding and indelible Danish drama that will almost surely pick up a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination when the nods are announced in about a month. The film tackles a touchy (no pun intended) subject with great care. It also raises a number of provocative points about perception versus reality.
Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a recently-divorced kindergarten teacher battling his ex for custody of their son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). Despite his personal difficulties, Lucas is great with the kids at the school where he works. One of those kids is his best friend Theo’s daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). The girl is bit of a loner herself because her father Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and mother Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing) are constantly at each other’s throats and barely notice when she slips away. So it’s not a surprise that Klara develops a somewhat unhealthy attachment to Lucas.
After Lucas gently rebukes her, Klara tells a graphic lie about him to Grethe (Susse Wold), another teacher. After Grethe informs Lucas of the allegation, Klara’s story snowballs its way up the chain of command to the rest of the faculty, followed by the parents at the school and, eventually, the entire town where Lucas lives. Even the woman Lucas is dating (Alexandra Rapaport) starts looking at him differently.
One of the first things you’ll notice as the story goes along is that director Thomas Vinterberg — who previously explored similar ground in The Celebration, and who wrote this expertly-crafted script with Tobias Lindholm — leaves no doubt about Lucas’ innocence. The drama in The Hunt doesn’t come from trying to determine whether Lucas is guilty or innocent; it comes from how irrelevant the concepts of guilt or innocence become once the pervert/child molester label attaches itself to Lucas.
Unfortunately, this perfectly decent man also happens to superficially fit the profile of someone we might imagine committing such a crime. He’s divorced, he lives alone, and the fact that he looks like Hannibal Lecter certainly isn’t doing him any favors. All kidding aside, Mikkelsen — deservedly a superstar in his native Denmark — is excellent as Lucas. The character is alternately reserved and jovial, compassionate and irate, desperate and despondent. Mikkelsen has movie star presence, but this is a restrained, interior performance that totally pulls you into Lucas’ personal hell. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s camera also deserves a fair share of the credit for the way it lingers and looms over Lucas without feeling intrusive. Vinterberg smartly and effectively underplays his hand from a visual standpoint because he knows the real fireworks are in the sensitive subject matter.
Larsen is impressive as Theo, a man caught between being a concerned father and a betrayed best friend, while Fogelstrom brings a welcome, affectionate spin to the typical surly teen. (Lucas and Marcus receive separate beatings; like father, like son.) The real find, however, is the phenomenal, freakishly-talented Wedderkopp, who makes Klara a sad, infuriating little cherub. The easy thing is to say Klara destroyed Lucas’ life with her lie, but The Hunt is not interested in demonizing a confused girl.
Instead, the thoughtful script takes great care in showing how well-meaning, but leading questions can lead to disastrous assumptions. “Innocent until proven guilty” has a nice ring to it, but it has very little to do with the way people think outside of courtrooms. The heart-pounding conclusion memorably pays off Chekov’s gun principle that (roughly) states if a hunting rifle is introduced in the first act, it absolutely must go off by the third act. More importantly, the ending suggests it’s impossible for someone to ever shed the stench of such a damaging accusation. (Florida State QB Jameis Winston may have picked up the latest Heisman Trophy, but I guarantee you people haven’t suddenly stopped looking at him sideways.) The Hunt may be set in a tight-knit Danish community, but the film’s drama and its startling impact is universal.
The Hunt is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 37 mpbs. The film is mostly set during the November/December months, which results in a bright and perpetually overcast image that this Blu-ray captures brilliantly. It’s actually a striking, transportive transfer, particularly when the action moves outside during the handful of outdoor/hunting scenes. The image proves to be versatile by also providing a nice warm palette during indoor scenes set during the holiday season. Black levels are also on point, giving the viewer excellent separation and shadow detail during some crucial scenes that take place in low light. (Eventually, Lucas gets so depressed, he doesn’t even bother turning on the lights in his house.) The fact that there’s no digital noise or any sort of blemishes in sight should go without saying, but I suppose I just said it anyway. This is as a good as it gets.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Danish track is at its liveliest when Lucas is still on good terms with his ebullient hunting buddies. Overall, it’s an understated track by design because the moments that do pop — a rifle shot; a brick through a window — become more impactful. Immersion and ambient noises are quieter than I expected during outdoor scenes, which is not a problem for the reasons I just stated. I don’t speak Danish, but the characters — mostly Lucas’ girlfriend Nadja — occasionally sprinkled in some English, which came through quite clearly.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Alternate Ending: (1:29) While this is certainly more definitive than the theatrical ending, I prefer the bone-chilling conclusion that actually made the final cut.
Outtakes/Deleted/Extended Scenes: (12:23) It’s a little disconcerting to see a few of the cast members crack up at the end of a dramatic moment, but this collection of four scenes has some strong material. The best involves a lengthy scene that fleshes out Theo’s conflict more obviously. (Thomas Bo Larsen crushes it too.) There’s also more screen time for Marcus. No Play All option, and you can’t select the scenes individually. However, they are split into four separate chapters.
Making of The Hunt: (6:59) This is a relatively brief “Making of,” but it covers a lot of interesting ground. Mikkelsen and Vinterberg articulately discuss the film’s sensitive themes. The director says he was approached by a child psychologist about telling this story and based his fictionalized story on many different cases. The duo also notes Lucas’ community was acting out of an unfortunate combination of love and fear, and that this sort of lie is more damaging than ever these days given the way information spreads.
I mentioned before that The Hunt (Jagten in Danish) is a shoo-in to have its name called in the Foreign Film category when the Oscar nominations are announced, but this film (not to mention Mikkelsen) is certainly good enough to play with the big boys and stand among the year’s very best films. (The Hunt premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, and I don’t really have the energy right now to figure out if it’s even eligible for the bigger categories.)
Of course, Oscar recognition isn’t close to the be all and end all of quality. The reason I bring it up at all is because you’re going to be hearing this movie’s name over the next few weeks, and I’d like to make sure you get your hands on this Blu-ray if at all possible. It’s a tense, affecting drama and a mini-masterpiece of human nature.