Saturday, January 11, 2014

A parliament of rooks


Though it often feints toward genre territory, The Hunt never becomes the kind of movie it direly needs to be, and is, after a fashion, worse for it; yet it must be conceded that it explores its chosen themes more broadly (never deeply) by so rudely eschewing anything remotely resembling audience satisfaction.  So if you didn't know that a presumption of innocence is important for a just society and needed two hours of didactically cruel infotainment with one (1) cool fight scene to explain it, have I got the movie for you!

2012 Danmark/2013 USA

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Written by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg
With Mads Mikkelsen (Lucas), Thomas Bo Larsen (Theo), Annika Wedderkopp (Klara), Alexandra Rappaport (Nadja), and Lasse Fogelstrom (Marcus)

Spoiler alert: severe

Smoothly hewn from the living rock itself by an eon of water flowing down from the slow northerly retreat of the Arctic ice, one day many years ago the Mikkelsen sprang forth from the earth.  The first thing he ever saw, through narrowed eyes that glinted like onyx in the cold, dim sun of the days long before Man, was his own reflection in the pool beneath himIn response, he took another stone and carved a tiny scar across the bridge of his nose, just to mar the austere perfection that had so offended his sensibilities.  Some say it was to mock what he could easily see, in the future of the small mammalian creatures that surrounded him, would be our own inborn flaws, but I do not believe it, for the Mikkelsen could hardly be concerned with trifles such as that.  Thus did he arrive in ours, the mortal world, waiting patiently for humans to join him in existence, so he would have someone with whom to play out the fantasies of a hundred million years.  In this movie, he's a nice kindergarten teacher.

Specifically, he is Lucas, a pillar of his rural Danish community.  Lucas is reserved and quiet; he is divorced and now lives alone in a house too large for his needs, and struggles, seemingly almost daily, over custody of their son, in an insistent but never quite inappropriate manner.  He's fallen from grace a little; once a teacher of older kids, now he's basically employed in daycare for the really wee ones in their first years out in society.  He drinks with the townsfolk, who think him lonely and worry, in a distant way, over his misfortunes.  He is deeply rooted in the community, and discounting the excoriation he gets from his ex-wife, he is respected by his coworkers and his wards' parents, loved by his son, desired by the most attractive single woman in town, and all find him to be a kind and decent man.  And he is.  I, for one, would be happy to call on him for psychiatric advice, or to play a few hands of poker with him.  He's basically innocence personified.

Do you see where this is going?

Merry fucking Christmas.

Now is Lucas falsely accused of pedophilia.  The initial accuser is a little girl who had a crush on him that he gently rebuffed, and she soon recants (over and over, actually); further, there is obviously no evidence to suggest he did anything.  But, since it's an allegation of pedophilia, his life is basically destroyed and the entire town turns against him.  Eventually, he is rendered such a pariah that his dog is murdered, and he is physically and forcibly exiled from his local grocer in a scene that is initially both difficult to watch and underscores everything that I find frustrating with the film, which is as much as to say just about everything about the film.

Thomas Vinterberg depicts rural Jylland as an idyll, combining a breathtaking array of autumnal oranges with a surprising amount of lovely production design for its interiorsat least, he's doing this when he's not shooting their occupants in close-up with a wobbly camera, though to a far less ugly and far more successful extent than you might expect from a former paragon of the mid-90s antifilm movement, or "Dogme 95" as its proponents once certified it.  Here, at least, Denmark looks inviting and strangely warm, even when it snows.

Do you see where this is going?

Of course you do, because whatever Denmark's beauty, it remains habitat to the most evil creature of them all.

Turns out it's Man!

When Klara, the little girl and putative victim, is questioned by a school administrator, she is interrogatedhowever gingerlywith questions that go beyond leading but which would, were they administered in a court of law, at least in the common law world, amount to counsel offering his own testimony.  I'm not certain at this distance from the film if she ever once actively affirms the story she'sessentiallybeing told.  Once this particular genie is out of the bottle, it can't be put back in.  The moment she uttered her lie, it becomes an inoperable cancer.

And this is, of course, completely by design and to the good of the film and its theme, which is how paranoia can turn all Maple Street into the nastiest monsters you ever saw in the span of a moment.  It's also like The Crucible; the difference is that pedo panic is probably more insidious because it is, until we finally give in and institute the total surveillance society that I don't understand what everyone has such a big problem with, effectively ineradicable.

For, as is viscerally depicted in The Hunt (get it? do you get it? also there is deer hunting in this movie), that genie too cannot be put back into the bottle, now that it has been loosed upon Western civilizationlargely for good, but in certain cases for ill.  Witchcraft may have turned out to be factually nonexistent, and it may have turned out that communism is the only sane response to capitalism after all, but pedophilia is a pretty objective evil, one that is not very likely to ever be reevaluated, and an accusation of pedophiliafounded or notwill, through the medium of a weak and terrified human nature, cast its long shadow over a life, turning friends to strangers, if not mortal enemies, and subjecting one to the inordinate power of society and (theoretically) the State.

In this regard, The Hunt is certainly intentionally frustrating; and, more than that, harrowing.  If I were better-read, I'd probably call it Kafkaesque, but I'm not, so I won't.

In other regards, intentional or not, The Hunt is frustrating because it bends Denmark so hard toward injustice that it breaks.  I mean it breaks the whole countrybecause if you were an alien who had never heard of Denmark before, you'd be forgiven if you thought it was in some kind of Mad Max-style anarchy, only with more moss on the trees, and also that it did have trees.

Spoken of more than seen, the State makes its single brief cameo when Lucas is arrested.  The cops get a couple of muttered background lines.  There is a hearingnot shownwhich goes in Lucas' favor due to the overwhelming absence of evidence.  Lucas then proceeds to be beaten the shit out of in public, as a business invitee of a grocery store, by its agents.

I can't speak to the specifics of Denmark's legal systemperhaps in Denmark aggravated battery and lynching are lawfulbut in any civilized country I've heard of, by the end of that scene, that store's workforce is in jail and Lucas has become the proud owner of a supermarket.  Thus the movie suddenly ends with a totally happy ending for everybody!  Or, at least everybody we don't want to see murdered, like so much two-legged venison.

Do you see where this is going?

No, you don't; at least I didn't.  And this is what is by far the most frustrating aspect of The Hunt: as the revenge film it clearly set out to be, it is tragically incomplete.

Well, that assumes more about what a given movie ought to be than would normally be healthy.  But in essence, it is a true and accurate statement of not only my own emotional reaction to the movie but the plot-mechanical structure of it; which isI suspectonce again intended, though this makes it no less of an assy move on Vinterberg's and Lindholm's parts.

"I wish this were a Refn picture."
"What's that, Mads?"

It isn't considered very cool to judge a film on what you wanted it to be, and the standard generally applied is that which Roger Ebert promulgated.  The degree to which the man followed it himself is debatable, although I think he did hew to it often enough.  Namely, the idea is that the quality of movie isn't in what it's about, but how it's about it.  I waver often in how closely I hold to this.

But, here, I don't think I ever wanted The Hunt to be something it never promised to be.  It never did promise to be a thriller, to be sure.  The "thrills," so to speak, that it promised were largely holocaustal in naturefor this is the tale of an innocent, torn down by society, told to educate the audience, and to make them feel the guilt of being part of such an unpleasant species of apebut it also promised a kind of grim catharsis.  It began to make these promises, subtly, early on; and by the far easier to watch ending of that scene in the grocery, it made them emphatically and unmistakably.  An hour and a half in was The Hunt, in earnest, beginning.

It is set up early that Lucas is an avid deer hunter and an efficient marksman.  Deer hunting serves as a motif in The Hunt.  Certainly, they baldly (and somewhat badly) symbolize Lucas' own status as prey (prey, one may agree; but he's not being hunted for sport or food, he's being hunted as a predator in his own right, no?he's the sabretoothed tiger, not the woolly mammoth, in this we're-all-still-cavemen feature).

My expectations could be chalked up to my own misunderstanding; it is no doubt in part the result of my intense desire for Mads Mikkelsen, Le Chiffre himself, to get down to the brass tacks of beating these guys' balls back into their abdomensand perhaps I'm just a bad audience, but can anyone honestly say they were not disappointed when his former best friend comes bearing a lousy token of detente after that climactic scene in the church, instead of Lucas burning that mother down with all the dirty souls inside?

No, the heightened, indeed hyper-reality of Lucas' persecution, in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic Denmark After the Rain, makes me rethink my self-criticism.  I don't think my expectations were the whole problem, nor even terribly unrealistic.

When they kill his dog, smash his windows, smash his son (!), and smash his very face in public, without a hint of state intervention, what can we be watching but the prelude to the revenge film The Hunt, in fact, should be, and that I so desperately needed it to be?

Don't yet accuse me of totally missing the point, because Lucas does fight back!  It is a brief and glorious moment.  But then that moment is gone.  He never turns a gun on anything but a deer, and The Hunt returns to its unfortunate groove, that of a bitter psychosocial drama.

It's still rather goodand Mikkelsen is certainly excellent, earning his plauditsPerhaps The Hunt is, after all, better than good.


In some ways it may, in fact, be expert: I can't shake the feeling that these gonzo genre expectations are cultivated deliberately, to make the viewer angry, expect catharsis, so that when the punch bowl is so cruelly snatched away from him, he too is left in despairnot at all unlike poor Lucas himself.

Sure, that's uncut speculation, but should we take it for the moment as fact, the existing version of The Hunt, the one pleased to wallow in its own manufactured misery, is still far, far, far less fun to watch than the alternativeeven as the movie that was actually made may speak more truth, if highly stylized and in large part symbolic truth.

As the film comes to its close, Lucas is fully exonerated.  But, although he is permitted to return to the tribe, nominally restored to all the rights and privileges of membership, the trial will never end for Lucas.

On next year's deer hunt, Lucas is in the forest, getting on with rural Scandinavian life; then a shot rings out from the hillside, fired by a man masked by the glare of the setting sun; he missed, and Lucas lives; but we thus end on a note of what barely registers as ambiguity.  Lucas will go on living in the shadow of their doubtuntil the day they do not miss.

Of course, I was far more looking forward (albeit unreasonably) to Lucas staging a hunting accident of his own.  But, although The Hunt's epilogue is tonally and emotionally jarring, its last moments, in particular its final shot, permit a chilling look at a man forever marked for suspicion, ostracism, brutality and death.

The Hunt is ultimately, then, a properly bleak descent into mass hysteria, and it is a solid character study of the innocent if rather discomfitingly milquetoast man at its center.  The problem is that one can't quite get over how it could have been more than merely descriptive.  As it stands, The Hunt shows that if you push a man far enough, he... makes a scene at your Christmas Eve mass.  I am no doubt too much a populist and sensualist; the scene is certainly fine as it stands.  Can I say that it is enough?

By its few haters, The Hunt has been called banalI would never go so far; but if I said that the word "trite" never crossed my mind, even if it were not quite accurate, I would be lying; and "shallow," it most undeniably is.

But whether what it's about is particularly inspired, the fact remains that it is about it well, for at every turn, The Hunt remains grimly investing, and painfully compelling.  Your own grade could easily be higher; I happily suggest that it is not at all likely to be lower.

Score: 5/10

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