Mads Mikkelsen Thomas Bo Larsen The HuntDir. Thomas Vinterberg
(2013, R, 115 minutes)

When it comes to the well-being of children, the protective instinct of human beings brings out the best and worst in us, sometimes simultaneously. Perhaps there is an evolutionary basis behind the way intelligent creatures become thoughtless pack animals in defense of our youth; we stop thinking and go on the attack.

But what makes The Hunt so powerful is showing how a misunderstanding about a child can lead to a cruel witch hunt without anyone necessarily being to blame. Young kindergarten student Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) hears some naughty words from her brother and sees naughty pictures on his iPad, and then at a moment of frustration with her teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), she uses some of those words to describe him, without really understanding their meaning or consequences. Afterward the grownups seem afraid and angry and start yelling, and she can see that Lucas is in big trouble when he doesn’t deserve to be.

Like Klara, the grownups make crucial mistakes without malicious intent. The school’s principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), wants to follow protocol, but first she brings in a trusted friend, of unknown credentials, to ask Klara a lot of leading questions, but they’re not satisfied until she confirms her earlier accusation, so she nods in the affirmative so they’ll let her leave.

Grethe makes another error in judgment: she brings the matter to the attention of the other students’ parents before contacting police and gives them pamphlets on how to identify signs of possible sexual abuse in their own children – bed-wetting, nightmares, headaches – but of course by applying those criteria to a group of kindergarteners half the class seems to have been raped. There we can see how a few poor choices and assumptions, when it concerns the corruption of children, can quickly whip up a town into a hateful frenzy.

The Hunt Susse Wold Annika Wedderkopp

And yet, who’s the villain? Lucas is innocent. Klara is too young to know better. Grethe is trying to do the right thing, and it’s understandable, even rational, for parents to react as they do when they believe their children are in the presence of a predator. Are they all fools for believing the child’s dubious story in the first place? Well, much damage has been done to abuse victims who are disbelieved by their parents, so we can hardly blame them for erring on the side of their kids.

In that way, director/co-writer Thomas Vinterberg creates an emotionally fraught, almost unnavigable moral puzzle where we watch people do terrible things but identify with all involved. We can’t separate ourselves from these characters or hold ourselves above them. We empathize and are implicated with them, because while we might hope to make different choices, many of us might fail to do so if placed in similar circumstances. It is an insightful portrait of right-thinking people turned against each other in a matter of days, and the effect is sad, harrowing, sobering.

Consider one of the film’s centerpiece scenes, of a Christmas mass where Lucas makes an uneasy entrance and the kindergarten children are set to perform. The anxiety escalates all around: in Lucas, who is at risk from the mob-like townspeople; in his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who is Klara’s father; in Klara, who watches the man whose life she has unintentionally upended, and even in the townspeople, who watch a man they strongly believe to be a pedophile once again in the presence of their children.

Vinterberg creates such tension – both on the screen and in the audience’s emotions – by illuminating and humanizing all the opposing points of view, even the ones we know to be false. One could watch The Hunt and wonder how the townspeople could be so closed-minded, but Vinterberg digs deeper than that. Imagine instead: How would you behave if you knew, with absolute certainty, that one of your neighbors was a child-molester? Now, how would you feel, about him and yourself, if you found out you were wrong?