Friday, July 12, 2013

THE HUNT: Thomas Vinterberg's -- and one of the year's -- best & most unsettling films

Pedophilia is such a hot-button topic that few narrative films tend to go there. Documentaries do, particularly when the abuser is connected with The Catholic Church, an organization more than worthy of ridicule and disdain. The subject is most often used as the cheap hook for sex-and-violence television and/or cable fare. This is one reason, of many, that the new Danish film THE HUNT (Jagten) is so worthy of your time and attention.

In it, a little girl (an exactly-right performance from Annika Wedderkopp, above, right)-- exposed to a provocative sexual visual by one of her older brother's adolescent friends around the same time as she experiences a rebuff from a much-beloved teacher and friend -- puts two and two together and gets 22. She doesn't lie, exactly, but she deliberately connects things that were heretofore unconnected, and when all hell breaks loose from her original comment, she is practically forced by almost all the adults around her to stick by her "story" and in fact elaborate on it.

How this plays out in The Hunt may bring to the minds of many of us Americans the infamous McMartin case from the 1980s -- a near model of what not to do in investigating supposed sexual abuse -- not to mention the more recent documentary Capturing the Friedmans that investigates similar territory. The former case was shown to be concocted out of the loony-tune minds of sex-hysterics; the latter unfortunately, despite strong evidence of poorly-handled investigation by the prosecution, continues to mine its injustices.

The film begins with what looks like the Danish version of a Polar Bear Club late-fall swim (two photos above), and then we hop from the water to home, school and all around town, noting the charm and easy camaraderie of this seemingly tight little community -- which proves just as tight in its hatred for and closing out of the would-be pedophile, once the rumor begins to spread. Nothing in this story is particularly new, I grant you, but its telling could hardly be better in terms of pulling us into the fast-crumbling life of its protagonist, played by the brilliantly empathic and versatile actor Mads Mikkelsen (above).

We see example after example of former friends and associates turn away from this innocent man, and as awful as this is to witness, it is also quite believable, for as one of the accusers states, "Children don't lie." Of course they do, but this is another of mankind's fondest hypocrisies, and it's one that is especially difficult to sink. I am trying to think of another film that places us this thoroughly under the skin of an accused innocent, but nothing comes to mind.

You will hate the rotten townspeople on view, even as you cannot help but wonder if you would be doing the same thing under similar circumstances. You'll feel disgust at the way all this is handled -- by the school, the authorities, the parents. And yet how often, you'll wonder, does something very nearly the same happen?

As directed and co-written (with Tobias Lindholm) by Thomas Vinterberg (shown at left, of Submarino and The Celebration), the movie looks smashing, as well. The photography (by Charlotte Bruus Christensen) is alternately gorgeous and colorful, dark and drained, and the writing is so very much better than that of A Hijacking (another recent Lindholm film). Directorially, the movie is the most polished of Vinterberg's career.

The ability to make viewers' blood boil -- and yet allow them to understand precisely how and why this must occur -- is no simple task, and Vinterberg deserves high praise for achieving this so well. He's clearly on the side of our hero but he also understands the townspeople's fear and anger, and even better, he lets us into the mind and feelings of the young girl in question.

Part thriller, part character study, part moral-quandary movie, The Hunt works on every level. And its unsettling ending seems to me just right in a number of ways. Off-balance is how we live now.

The movie, from Magnolia Pictures and running a fast-paced 111 minutes, opens today, Friday, July 12, in New York (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal and Playhouse 7). In the weeks (and months) to come, the film will open all around the country. To see all currently scheduled playdates, click here.

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