All happy families: The Hunt and Silver Linings Playbook

27 November 2012

'The Hunt', in cinemas from Friday 30 November, is Thomas Vinterberg's return to form and acclaim. 'Silver Linings Playbook', meanwhile, dances an uneven but overall enjoyable tune.

For The Hunt (Jagten), Thomas Vinterberg inverts the premise of his 1998 debut feature, Festen. That film presented its twist early on: at a wedding, the bride’s brother reveals in his speech that he and his late sister were frequently abused by their father during childhood. In The Hunt, a kindergarten teacher finds himself wrongly accused of molesting one of the children. Like the earlier film, this – co-written with Vinterberg by Tobias Lindholm – demonstrates its director’s refreshing willingness to fully commit to emotionally challenging drama and tease out subtleties all-too-often shirked.

The accused is Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), the accuser Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). Daughter to arguing parents Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), Klara’s admiration for Lucas turns to confused hurt when he diplomatically returns a gift she has left for him at the nursery. One night, in unthinking haste, she hints to Grethe (Susse Wold), another worker at the nursery, that Lucas’s penis “sticks out”. Grethe, concerned, pushes Klara for further information, and the next day confronts Lucas about it. Advising that he should temporarily leave his post, Grethe foregoes professional conduct and catalyses a communal hysteria that denies Lucas an outlet to rationally defend himself or pacify the outrage of those around him.

From the onset, however, we know Lucas is innocent of such wrongdoing. It is clear, firstly, how impressionable Klara is. Already precocious, she has inherited a cheekiness from home, repeating her dad’s go-to line in response to chores or people: they “can have a kick up the arse”, she tells Lucas. Furthermore, her careless reference to Lucas’s penis, we know, stems less from her imagination than an exposure in an early scene to a pornographic image shown to her by her teenage brother and his friends. Placing us in no doubt as to Lucas’s innocence allows the film’s makers to tell the drama from almost a thriller’s perspective: Lucas is a Hitchcockian Wrong Man but for the fact that his stakes are relatable and palpable rather than the outcome of international espionage. Indeed, so much rests in this film on what is firstly said (and not said) and secondly construed (and misconstrued); on what is accepted as the truth and what is dismissed.

Individual scenes are compellingly maddening. Grethe’s confrontation of Lucas seems at first tactful, but her incompetence and lack of professionalism quickly rear their ugly heads. As rumours spread, Lucas becomes more and more isolated. That he is best friends with Klara’s dad, Theo, makes for some of the film’s most emotionally charged moments – and also the key to the narrative’s resolution. Some scenes are absurdly comic, such as that in a supermarket whose staff have banned Lucas from entering. Others implicate irrationality and sensationalism as the governing forces of societal undoing: note that scene in which Klara, realising the extent to which things have escalated, confesses that her clumsy accusation was fabricated, only for her mother to dismiss it as fearful backtracking. Such absurdities implicate some of the adult characters as the film’s most immature. Indeed, the film’s title refers to the ceremonial ritual that begins and ends the film, in which, as one character says, “boys become men and men become boys”.

Some liberties are taken. Where, for instance, are the police? Their presence here is minimal – though dealing with the legalities off-screen does allow the script to retain a sense of claustrophobia. There is, meanwhile, a too-symmetrical illogicality to the way in which Lucas’s innocence is eventually acknowledged – though the scene in which this occurs might be the film’s most powerful. Such conveniences notwithstanding, however, this is often superb stuff, shot with profitable clarity and a sharp warmth by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. The performances are excellent: Mikkelsen and Wedderkopp are particularly outstanding. The film’s real achievement, though, is its commitment to a comparatively basic premise. Watching The Hunt wanting it to follow through upon the dramatic promises its scenes make, you’d be forgiven for fearing this won’t be the case, and for consequently half-wanting certain scenes to end before they do. But as with Festen, this evinces and sustains a dramatic depth even up to its final moment, a suggestive flourish that recalls Taxi Driver's (1976) denial of a wholly sweet conclusion.

Silver Linings Playbook (out already) takes as its starting point another potentially difficult subject matter, though the results are elicited this time through a romantic comedy framework. Its protagonists are Pat (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). When the former is released from a mental institution, he embarks upon a daily regime that includes regular exercise and a high school reading list, which he feels will help him strategise towards a reconcilement with his wife, who took out a restraining order against him when he attacked the man with whom she was having an affair. Pat meets recently widowed Tiffany when both are invited to dinner by friends. During a subsequent meet-up, Tiffany suggests to Pat that she'd be able to get a letter to his wife, a favour in return for which she'd like him to enter a dance competition with her. Reluctantly, he agrees.

Writer-director David O. Russell works within and against genre conventions here in much the same way he did in The Fighter (2010), retaining a recognisable narrative template while injecting appreciable and serviceable momentum. His last film was based on a real boxer's career, and grounded its triumphalism by focusing more on the class and domestic currents surrounding the ring than on the sporting spectacle; similarly, Silver Linings Playbook is a romance story whose superficial novelty is that both its chief characters are dealing less with their feelings for each other than with their own mental illnesses - for most of the film, the main thrust is Pat's wish to get back with a wife we've only ever seen fleetingly, in brief flashbacks in which Pat kicks her lover half to death.

Russell plays things on the strategic side of comedic. In an early scene that made it to the trailers intact, Pat throws a Hemingway paperback through his window in rage (he doesn't know his own strength!), unable to accept its downer ending. Ranting to his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) in the middle of the night, he calls for more escapism in art. On the one hand, this sets up both Pat's own wish for a fantasist's happy ending while at the same time lays out his character arc - a maturing process whose outcome obviously includes ditching said ending after all. On the other hand, however, throwing Hemingway out of the window deceives us into rooting for an ending that is equally escapist, but disguised as somehow more plausible (read "refreshing!", "unconventional!", "original!", "quirky!"). In this sense, the film is able to forget about the difficulties of mental illness about halfway through and focus instead on the finer details of an illegal wager and the emotional stakes of a hopeless dance routine, which concludes with a Lost In Translation-syle inaudible whisper. Pat's arc might resemble that of Mike Peters, meanwhile, the sulky dreamer played by Jon Favreau in Swingers (1996) - which is only a spoiler if this rom-com's ending was never set up so neatly (even its title pitches quirk and convention against one another).

Silver Linings Playbook's universe - adapted from Matthew Quick's novel - is one of heightened emotional stress. Russell directs cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's camera in a series of shaky pans and tracks and medium-close-ups and close-ups. Stifled visually, in many of its scenes the film racks up aural claustrophobia with overlapping dialogue and that strong sweep of events getting out of hand. As Pat's father - a superstitious football fanatic whose support for the Philadelphia Eagles is limited to his armchair following a stadium ban for violent behaviour - De Niro is particularly overwrought in almost every scene he's in. That his production is blessed with such acting talents (Cooper and Lawrence are both very likeable, though to say they're excellent implies their characters are plausibly scripted), it's somewhat curious that Russell wishes to impart his own rather exhausting energies onto scenes. If indeed his creative decisions are designed to reflect his characters' frames of mind, then one might argue that Russell's approach to some degree aestheticises mental illness. At any rate, it's at a far remove from David Mercer and Ken Loach's more serious efforts to explore mental illness for dramatic purposes, In Two Minds (1967) and Family Life (1971).

Like those two films, at least, Silver Linings Playbook gives some time to peripheral characters whose own behaviour goes some way to account for that of Pat (and, by proxy, that of Tiffany, though the film indulges few details as to her own background). In the present, Pat's pressures are mostly familial, as well as legal; but we get a sense also that his previous breakdown was linked in some way to professional pressures, to marital pressures, to the social and the fraternal. All of these are in some way historical pressures: Pat belongs to the ne'er(or cannae)-do-right generation that lives and dies on the perceived successes of monetary income. To this end, his friend Ronnie's (John Ortiz) apparently happy marriage - he and wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) have an iPod socket in every room - is only a facade whose outward joy is a house of cards. The point of these peripheral characters - including Danny (Chris Tucker), Pat's fellow mental patient, whose positivity is in impossibly stark contrast to everyone else - seems to be that neurosis is a way of life. And, just as Pat and Danny's own rejection of everyday etiquette draws attention to the stifling nature of social contracts and unwritten laws, Silver Linings Playbook's adherence to a digestible template points out the neurotic foundations of the romantic comedy as a whole.

P.S. "All Happy Families" is an episode in the fifth season of The Sopranos. A recurring peripheral character in that show is "Beansie" Gaeta, played by Paul Herman - who stars in Silver Linings Playbook as Randy, the smalltime bookie with whom Pat's father makes a decisive wager.

[The Hunt's review was originally posted on 15 October at Front Row Reviews.]