It might seem an odd thing to say about a movie that generates, very quickly, an atmosphere of claustrophobic tragedy, that it could have been darker, but I think that assessment is apt for Thomas Vinterberg‘s The Hunt (2012). This frightening tale of an otherwise sympathetic man whose life is almost destroyed by an untruthful accusation made by a deeply confused child takes us to the edge of the abyss. We stare into it; we retreat to safer ground. But as the movie draws to a close, it is not quite clear we are safe yet. We cannot yet breathe easy.
Pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children is serious business. Accusations of pedophilia have to be taken seriously; too many lives have been ruined by a failure to notice unspeakable abuse committed against the innocent by those considered deserving and worthy of trust. But there is a right way and wrong way to go about doing so. The Hunt could serve as a manual for how to get it catastrophically wrong. You do not feed children answers; you do not interrogate them without their parents present; you do not escalate matters without good reason; and so on. Lucas (played by Mads Mikkelsen in a stellar performance brimming with quiet pain), a kindergarten teacher who is lonely in his personal life, but warm and friendly to his wards at school, is devastated by this malignant incompetence. The little girl Klara–her imagination inflamed by pornographic images glimpsed in passing, and possessed by pique at having her childish quasi-romantic advances rebuffed by Lucas–who fingers him to the school authorities, is indeed abused, but not by Lucas. She is abused by the way her tale is handled and ‘processed.’ Once her fatal words have passed her lips, she too becomes a pawn, buffeted by forces beyond her control.
The central tragedies of The Hunt are that Lucas’ life, which is about to find a new, hopeful, and redemptive trajectory is knocked off-course; that Klara lashes out because she is a child perhaps lacking in adequate attention and care at home; and that an accusation like the one she makes, in this world, can never be fully retracted (as the ending of the movie makes painfully clear). Communities built on trust are underwritten by a fragility whose presence is only noted when these human groupings are torn asunder by seemingly minor irruptions of fear, suspicion, and paranoia.
The anguish of the falsely accused is among the most painful human experiences to witness. As Klara’s accusation acquires a life of its own, Lucas loses his life-long friends; he is ostracized by his community; his son is devastated. We might consider these justifiable penalties for the guilty; they are devastatingly inappropriate for the innocent. There is genuine horror here; for what we witness is not an assault by the lurking forces of a malignant supernatural but instead by goodness gone bad. We witness yet again, how easily one may be transformed into another. That might be The Hunt‘s most frightening lesson.