Finally landing on U.S. shores after more than a dozen film festivals since its bow at Cannes in May 2012 (where its star, Mads Mikkelsen, won the best actor award), “The Hunt” does indeed showcase the thespian chops of the acclaimed 47-year-old actor, who scored heavily in “A Royal Affair,” the Danish entry for best foreign film in last year’s Oscar’s race. American couch potatoes will recognize him as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the 13-episode, first season of the NBC series “Hannibal” (look for more in 2014). He’s also in “Michael Kohlhaas,” a tale of 16th century injustice and the latest remake of the Heinrich von Kleist story, which will take him full circle when it debuts at the 2014 Cannes festival.
As Lucas in this modern day Scandinavian witch hunt, he’s an innocent man unjustly tortured, mentally and physically, by life-long best buds and neighbors turned lynch-mob fanatics (their fists and tossed rocks replacing pitchforks) in a small Danish community. Recently divorced, he’s a former school teacher who becomes a day-care helper in an effort to make a living. His bespectacled, bedraggled appearance belies his genuine affection for the toddlers, particularly the impressionable Klara, whose semi-dysfunctional parents Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), Lucas’s best friend, and Agnes (Anna Louise Hassing) often forget to pick up their child at the end of the school day. Often walking her home, her juvenile crush on him sours when he suggests her gift to him of a artsy-crafty heart would be better suited to someone her own age.
What becomes a very bad game of telephone starts when Klara declares to one of the other day-care adults that she hates Lucas. The rumors escalate, initially spread by the mean-spirited Grethe (Susse Wold), who runs the center and perceives the worst in her employee. She’s a hideous person, hoisting her interpretation of the child’s answers to her manipulative questions. “I believe the children. They never lie.” she offers as evidence enough to convince her that Lucas is guilty of child molestation. The blonde-haired child, marvelously played by Annika Wedderkopp, blends an innocence, unawareness, and confused guilt in the wake of her comments, even as the townspeople fire up their virtual torches. While the fierce masses continue to ostracize their neighbor, the simple-minded Klara (like the innocent child in the Boris Karloff version of “Frankenstein,” but without the tragedy in that 1931 film) knocks on the door of the down-and-nearly-out Lucas with an offer to walk his dog, Fanny.
Set during the Christmas season, there’s little mirth in the screenplay by director Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, which offers a different approach to child abuse than that found in Vinterberg’s breakthrough, award-winning 1998 feature “The Celebration,” a darkly comic drama about a family’s disastrous reunion that reveals ugly childhood truths. That film was the first adherent to the Dogme 95 philosophy christened by Vinterberg and fellow director Lars von Trier, wherein filmmakers adhered to strict natural lighting and traditional acting. No FX allowed.
“The Hunt” offers up a similar realism, without the burden of Dogme. It showcases a powerful version of trust abused and the drastic means by which a small town mentality can go horrible awry with ever escalating accusations. The only merriment is offered by Lucas’s teenage son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm), Marcus’s godfather Bruun (Lars Ranthe) and his family, and his newly minted girl friend Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), although her doubts force Lucas to banish her from his life. In the fight for his innocence, it seems that Lucas just expects the truth–and his innocence–will eventually come out. If you’re wondering where the lawyers are, it appears that Danes perceive a person’s guilt when someone hires one.
The cornerstone to “The Hunt” is the mesmerizing performance by Mikkelsen, whose portrayal of a Danish everyman’s shattered descent into a horrifying nightmare is one of the most powerful performances I’ve seen in recent memory. On the flip side, I had a few problems with the film. The story occasionally veers perilously close to soap opera melodrama. And the film’s abrupt ending, surrounding a celebratory deer hunt, merely offers a confusing turn on conciliatory events. It’s still an impressive piece.