The Hunt (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Release Date: November 30th, 2012 (UK); January 10th, 2013 (Denmark)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen

“What’s your favourite dish?”

The question, posed by a young, chirpy girl not long after the opening credits, is a humdrum one. The kind of conversation starter that represents the mundanity of everyday life, or in this case, the imagination of a child yearning to learn more about people, the world and everything. But also a sentence that sets the proceeding tone, run-of-the-mill, at least for 20 minutes or so. The question then, is a devious one. It represents a laid-back, frothy atmosphere that in hindsight turns to chilling and haunting given the almost two hours of harrowing on-screen events that follow. The question, therefore, is brilliant. At least, its connotations are in the long run. The two whose conversation includes said food-related musing are also the two whose actions and reactions determine what is come. The question, above all else, is apt. Because only a daring director can script a meal question and pose it to Mads Mikkelsen. And, apparently, only Thomas Vinterberg possesses the smarts to cheekily have an imagination-driven child ask the question. And only once the lingering shroud of Hannibal-esque clouds are confronted and subsequently expunged, can the narrative truly advance and become one of the year’s toughest and absolute best.

Venison, by the way.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a caring fellow; his dedicated work at the local kindergarten secondary only to a day-to-day template constructed by the enthusiastic youngsters, to whom he abides. In the evenings, Lucas spends time endorsing the merriment brought on by the combination of alcohol and a tight-knit community, and at weekends he either crazily plunges into freezing water with his chums, or tactfully hunts with his gun. Normal life. In fact, the only oddity encasing this small Danish community is that it is so friendly. That is, until a fleeting comment escapes the mouth of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of the children Lucas looks after. The words are untrue, generated from the petulant anger of an unassuming child, but they still send shock waves around the neighbourhood. Subsequently, that day-to-day existence Lucas thrives on spirals through an unforgiving rigour. For an ingrained belief can never truly be shaken.

From the get-go, director Thomas Vinterberg sets out to achieve a specific but absolutely necessary tone. Lucas is always the central cog from which we gauge emotion. As daylight seeps from the screen, early interactions are conversational. When darkness falls, raucous beer-fuelled gatherings evoke jolly connotations of Nordic Vikings. There’s a familiar communal atmosphere, enveloping familiar people. Therefore when the agonising allegation is made, by a child no less, the audience has already bought into the realism shrouding proceedings. From then, a simmering tension takes over. Vinterberg does not over-egg or ‘Hollywoodize’ anything; even though detective teachers and informed parents are aware of the situation, they don’t explode in fits of rage or anger. Rather, internal disgust consumes all, allowing the narrative to tentatively build to its anticipated crescendo. Vinterberg’s controlled approach is admirable and ultimately successful; in this sense, the film is very mature and the filmmaking is very accomplished.

Vinterberg also hammers home the accused’s criminal status: at no point during the film is Lucas positioned as guilty. That’s never an issue, not in the eyes of the audience anyway. We know Lucas is innocent, but we also find it difficult to persecute a child for a mistaken phrase. And what right, if any, does anyone have in denouncing the actions of parents and a community trying to protect their own? Lucas himself mightn’t even challenge the paternal instinct, given his own attempts to secure custody of his son. The Hunt ponders this question, and tackles resultant topical societal issues. Important ones. Soon after Klara’s confession (“I don’t believe a child would lie about these things”) disapproving fumes centred on Lucas’ apparent actions spread like wildfire throughout the area, as he becomes the poster-boy of wrongfulness. These reverberations are not only felt by Lucas himself, but also by his son and partner. The teacher’s identity being revealed so soon after the incident essentially scalds an innocent man for life, a notion the film appears to consider unfair.

Bookended by two apparently different but thematically resounding hunting outings, proceedings never really ease up — mirroring probable real life. Towards the climax, a scene involving Lucas and Klara will have you watching through bated breath, and there’s more still thereafter. Speaking of the two primary players in this chess game of moral standing and right or wrong-doing, the actors involved all have something to offer said disturbingly riveting happenings. As Lucas, Mads Mikkelsen delivers arguably a career-best performance; amiable at the beginning, poignantly steadfast throughout his plight and never without dignity which, given his character’s predicament, is an extraordinary achievement from the Dane. Annika Wedderkopp plays Klara and more than holds her own surrounded by many adult peers. She’s a child obviously, thus inherently boasts that endearing quality, but is much better than simply charming. The pair share an unwaveringly realistic dynamic.

Other noteworthy performances emanate from Lasse Fogelstrøm as Lucas’ son Marcus, and Thomas Bo Larsen as Theo, Lucas’ best friend and the father of Klara. Marcus is troubled by the allegations made against his dad, yet determined not to let it get the better of him. One scene, subtle in delivery but upsetting in substance, sees Marcus barred from a supermarket while in the vicinity of a girl he likes. Fogelstrøm is just as meaningful in these moments as he is during his emotional tirade later on. Trust is the issue when it comes to Theo, whose immediate outpouring of anger subdues a lingering instinctive feeling that his best friend is innocent. This concept is highlighted throughout the film, where characters inadvertently advance a lie and ignore a truth in order to find some sort of closure. Larsen is excellent in his role, torn, bewildered and hurt by the goings-on. Alexandra Rapaport plays Nadja, the love interest of Lucas, another victim of events.

The Hunt is an exceptional piece of filmmaking, not afraid to explore tough questions and certainly not unwilling to challenge any subsequent societal issues. Chartered by a magnificent Mads Mikkelsen performance, and crafted meticulously by Thomas Vinterberg, the film doesn’t do much wrong. At times the silence is deafening, and as the nerve-shredding tensions builds, that silence turns to a harrowing closet hysteria.

The hunt indeed.

Daybreakers (2010)

★★★

Directors: Michael and Peter Spierig

Release Date: January 6th, 2010 (UK); January 8th, 2010 (US)

Genre: Action; Drama; Horror

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan

As a commentary on modern-day civilisation and western domination, Daybreakers is very good. As a scattered action romp where humans are pitted against vampires, Daybreakers is not too bad either. Where the film does fall on flat on its face though, is when it tries too hard to combine the two without properly answering all of the questions or delivering the most exhilarating action. In the end, there is just far too much going on.

Daybreakers is set a decade in the future, in 2019, where the human race is almost entirely extinct and the world is primarily inhabited by vampires. As the number of remaining human beings diminishes, so too does the amount of blood, the vampire’s means of function. A dominant vampiric corporation headed by owner Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) sets out to find an adequate blood substitute, while researcher and reluctant vampire Edward Dalton (a vampire named Edward? that will never work), played by Ethan Hawke, aligns with a group of humans in order to find a cure and save mankind.

From the get-go, Daybreakers develops a collection of parallel analogies with life in the present day, and all of the social, environmental and political problems the world currently faces. For example, the rapid depletion of human blood and local conflicts over obtaining the substance can be understood as a reference to the imminent decrease in water levels around the globe, along with the ‘water wars’ going on in many third world countries. In Daybreakers, cities are controlled and domineered over by a ruthless police force, much akin to the security forces inhabiting dictatorship regimes in varies reaches of the planet, where many civilians are wrongfully oppressed (in the case of Daybreakers, the humans). These are only two of a whole host of succinct and well established connections that writers and directors, the Spierig brothers, obviously had in mind when creating the film. The directors’ thematic inclusions are stimulating, as their representation of modern society works very well throughout. When attempting to incorporate select societal elements into a film it is important to ensure that the piece does not become too overawed with commentaries, and that it does not become a parody of modern existence. The film successfully steers clear of any such dangers for the time it spends on-screen. If part of the job of cinema is to get its audience thinking about issues relevant to them, then Daybreakers hits a home run.

However, where the film begins to lose its way is when the narrative itself becomes to over-run by plot points and sub-plots. The directors do so well in keeping the societal analogies in check that they seemingly forget about the actual events of the film, and the sheer volume of goings-on. Not only is the set-up to the main story confusing and does not really make much sense (Ethan Hawke’s character works for a corporation dealing in blood harvesting, yet he is opposed to drinking human blood and is sympathetic towards humanity), but before any of the main plot-points can be concluded, more and more sub-plots are added to proceedings. Along with the group of humans and Hawke attempting to find a cure and Neill’s corporation making inroads into discovering a blood substitute both playing out on-screen, so too does Hawke’s tumultuous relationship with his brother, Neill’s battle with the remorse he holds over the disappearance of his daughter and an underlying problem with subsiders around the city (vampires who feed on themselves, subsequently turning rogue). With all of these separate events divulging information at the same time for the audience to attempt to soak in, matters quickly become overbearing. The absence of many of the sub-plots would not have made the slightest difference to the outcome of the film.

Daybreakers also runs into trouble as it progresses along the cure story-line. A key event in the narrative takes place mid-way through the film which is intended to have harrowing connotations with what came before it and what comes later on. Unfortunately, the reveal goes the other way and comes across as a tad lazy and nonsensical. With that being said, this problem does sort itself to a degree as Daybreakers nears its conclusion, and to the Spierig brothers’ credit, the final few scenes are very smart and well thought-out. The film looks tremendous, with everything from the metallic, sharp city-scape to the visceral, gory horror elements mesh together to create a diverse-yet-encapsulating visual offering. Sam Neill is wonderfully wicked as the rich, oligarchical business leader who shares one or two similar characteristics with Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. The rest of the film is efficiently cast, as Ethan Hawke (who has a vampire-like quality to his look in general) is effective in his role as the well-meaning protagonist. Willem Dafoe’s charismatic turn as “Elvis” Cormac is a far cry from his usual outings, and he is slightly underutilised here.

Running at just over an hour and a half, Daybreakers does not overstay its welcome as it brims with ideas and comments on modern society, successfully posing questions to its audience and generating the mind. However it simultaneously loses focus on the meat of events, as too many things are going on at once when a simpler narrative would have been the perfect accompaniment to the thought-provoking themes which the film boasts.