In an age when a grown man even coming near children alone is somehow considered pedophilic, it’s amazing that one would be allowed to teach (or rather, babysit) at a kindergarten. And yet, this is what Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen, pre-“Bitch Better Have My Money“) does for a living in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Perhaps ever since Lolita hit the shelves, society at large is so afraid of what a man is capable of, that it never occurs to them that there could be anything innocent between an adult male and a child of any sex.
Even in Denmark, a seemingly progressive country, the small town vibe prevails, with the slightest rumor causing irrevocable damage to a person’s reputation. In Lucas’ case, his niceties to his best friend’s, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), cause her to develop a misinformed crush on him. After they walk to the kindergarten together one day (she has a compulsion about staring down at the cracks or lines in the pavement to avoid them and therefore often needs an escort), Klara makes him a card with a heart in it and later jumps on him to kiss him on the mouth. When Lucas confronts her about the card, he tells her she should give it to one of the other boys and that she should only be kissing her parents on the mouth (which is a bit weird, but okay). Klara, hurt by his rejection, denies giving him the heart and sulks away.
Because her mother, Agnes, (Anne Louise Hassing), is always late picking Klara up, she is permitted to brood in the dark as the headmistress, of sorts, of the kindergarten, Grethe (Susse Wold), casually engages her in conversation. With the sting of Lucas’ repudiation still on her brain, she absently seethes, “I hate Lucas.” Grethe states, “Oh, I thought you were such good friends.” “We’re not.” “Why not?” Klara coldly says, “He’s stupid, and he’s ugly. And he has a penis.” Laughing, Grethe responds, “Well most men do, don’t they?” Replaying a line her brother said after showing her a picture of porn, Klara absently states, “But his points straight up in the air like a rod.” It is this comment that becomes Lucas’ undoing, as Grethe can’t get it out of her head over the weekend and brings in a psychologist to ask Klara about it again, who denies it as a lie this time, but is essentially coerced into admitting to something that didn’t happen at this point. From there, the runaway train of condemnation can’t be stopped.
It couldn’t come at a worse time, either, as Lucas is just about to regain full-time custody of his adolescent son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm), and has just started dating an attractive woman named Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), who works as something of a maid for the kindergarten. Even his dog, Fanny, seems to be getting over his ex, Kirsten–though she still barks every time her name is mentioned. And yet, whenever fate seems to momentarily favor a person, it feels obliged to suddenly make an about-face. Hence, word about Lucas’ “misconduct” spreads rampantly after Grethe announces it to everyone at a parent/teacher meeting. Rather than considering Lucas’ character and unimpeachable record of respectability, everyone is quick to jump on the bandwagon of judgment and false accusations.
After going through the torment of being fired and arrested, Lucas is released due to the children’s (yes, all of them end up claiming he did something to them) description of being in his basement when he abused them, except he doesn’t have a basement. These delusional details end up being his saving grace from prison, but not from the proverbial scarlet A that’s been stamped upon him permanently in the eyes of his fellow townspeople. As the ending reveals (in a dramatic fashion that brings the narrative full-circle), no matter how much time passes or how many people vouch for you, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate the disease of the lynch mob mentality once it has taken hold. The Hunt, as a title, then becomes synonymous with witch hunt, with others always trying to find a scapegoat to channel their aggression and misplaced anger toward.