"The Hunt" is a terrifying cautionary tale about the loss of innocence, sexual abuse and children. But in a chilling twist, the innocence lost is that of a single father, a respected member of the community, a beloved kindergarten teacher suddenly pegged as a pedophile by an angry child.
It is a devastating film to watch, a heedful one, and a tragic reminder that no matter how well a life has been conducted, the mere whiff of such scandalous behavior is condemnation enough.
The film, which stars Mads Mikkelsen, that versatile Dane, follows the accused teacher, Lucas, through the destruction wrought by a single lie that sparks a wildfire of rumors and recriminations.
If you were in Los Angeles in the 1980s, it is impossible not to be reminded of the McMartin preschool case that dominated headlines for nearly a decade and still remains a question mark in so many minds.
Director Thomas Vinterberg co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Lindholm. Better at drama than comedy, "The Hunt" is by far the filmmaker's most accomplished work yet. Vinterberg was smart to never let us doubt Lucas' innocence. It allows us to stay in his corner even as the accusations pile up.
"The Hunt" begins with a hunt in the literal sense. Introducing us to the dynamics of the small Danish town where the story unfolds is one of the more bracing annual rites — the men stripping and jumping into an icy lake to mark the beginning of deer season. It is central to the story how tightly they are bound. Friendships and family ties stretch back generations.
Lucas has a keen eye and is respectful in the way he takes down a buck — the crunch of the leaves underfoot, the crack of the rifle shot, all that break the silence of the forest. The deer is the first innocent to fall, completely unaware of his fate until that well-placed bullet strikes him down. It becomes a powerful metaphor for the film, beautifully shot in muted tones by director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen, who won the Vulcain Prize at Cannes in 2012 for her artistry.
Drinks are lifted as triumphs and failures are celebrated, companions finding comfort in the camaraderie. Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen, a Vinterberg regular) celebrates far too much and Lucas delivers his drunken friend safely home to wife, teenage son and a young daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). She's a beautiful little girl of around 5, bothered by many things, including lines on the floor she can't bear to step on. No one else seems to notice her dilemma at a doorway but Lucas, who gamely carries her across a room covered with them.
That lines are crossed is another defining metaphor and, like the hunt, one the filmmakers will turn to again. Though this scene is a pivotal one in Lucas' downfall, he is already an embattled man. The divorced father is fighting for custody of teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom). Financially he's struggling as a teacher at the local kindergarten. Lucas' kindness to Klara leads to a schoolgirl crush he quickly rebuffs. Her story is concocted out of hurt feelings and pieces of her older brother's conversations about boys and body parts.
The kindergarten becomes the prime incubator for a rising panic as Grethe (Susse Wold), the relatively restrained school administrator, becomes the instigator of this modern-day witch hunt. The rising hysteria is captured as Klara's story is repeated, interpreted, examined and embellished. Soon the entire community is undone along with the man.
The director is equally careful in the portrayal of Klara. She is no monster. Played with a great sensitivity by young Wedderkopp, she is more a troubled child whose momentary pique is immediately beyond her control. More frightening than her charge is the way the adults handle it over time.
Mikkelsen is no stranger to playing villains. He went up against James Bond in "Casino Royale" in 2006, a role that called for menace and no subtlety. His current run as Dr. Hannibal Lecter on NBC's "Hannibal," is a clear-cut case of evil. But Lucas required something else entirely, someone miscast in the role.
The actor is riveting as he moves from shocked to stoic to defiant, desperate to hold on to his dignity and reclaim his reputation. As the central conduit for virtually all of the building tension, Mikkelsen's performance of a man under siege earned the best actor prize at Cannes in 2012. Vinterberg took the Ecumenical Jury award.
In contrast to the explosive issue of sexual abuse, one of the film's strengths is its restraint. Violent moments are kept to a minimum and are more incendiary for it. More typical is Grethe's reaction during one of the interviews with Klara. The administrator becomes overcome by nausea at what she thinks is the truth. It is difficult not to feel that same stomach-churning sensation because you know it.