The devastating impact of a child’s false accusation of sexual misconduct against an adult and the veil it rips from the façade of genial small-town life are the subjects of Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt,” which he co-wrote with Tobias Lindholm. In it, Mads Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a divorced man who, down on his luck, has taken a job working at a pre-school run by Grethe (Susse Wold). Though hardly a genial-looking fellow, he’s a big hit with the kids, roughhousing with the boys to their delight. His co-worker Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) also takes a liking to him despite his shyness, and his adolescent son Marcus (Lasse Folgestrom) could well be moving from his mother’s place back to his dad’s.
Lucas’ warmth and kindness also appeal to little Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), a big, bearlike man with whom he goes deer hunting and, along with other men in the town, engages in other macho outdoor activities. Since Theo and his wife (Anne Louise Hassing) often fight and ignore her, Klara latches onto the familiar Lucas, who often walks her to and from school and lets her cavort with his dog. But when she impulsively kisses him during a playtime at the school and he gently suggests it wasn’t the right thing to do, she reacts with a child’s intensity. Apparently prompted by something pornographic she’s seen on her older brother’s tablet, she mutters a childish attack on Lucas, and though she’s too young even to understand what she’s saying, Gerthe takes the mumbled words to mean that Lucas had exposed himself to her. When pressed the girl agrees to whatever the grown-up authorities suggest to her, and even when she says that Lucas hadn’t done anything at all and what she said was just silliness, the adults—including her mother—chalk the recantation up to a kid’s repression of unpleasant memories.
Soon Lucas is fired and comes under police investigation. With the sole exception of one man, Marcus’ godfather Brunn (Lars Ranthe), all the townspeople turn against him, and even Nadja has doubts. When he tries to buy groceries at the local supermarket, he’s told he’s unwelcome, and when he protests he’s beaten. And though Marcus stands by him, when the boy tries to confront Klara he’s attacked too, and he and Lucas suffer an even more physically and psychologically brutal assault when they’re talking together in Lucas’ house.
“The Hunt” tackles a subject that’s not terribly new. The notion of adult lives disrupted by a child’s accusations recalls Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play “The Children’s Hour,” and the often horrendous reaction to charges of pedophilia has been treated in other recent films. The revelation of the darkness found at the heart of an apparently idyllic community has been dealt with repeatedly as well, in films like Clouzot’s “Le Corbeau.” What sets this one apart is the extraordinary performance of Mikkelsen, often cast as a villain (as in the title role of the current NBC series “Hannibal”) but here embodying the pathos of a man who simply cannot comprehend what’s happening to him or, despite everything he endures, hate those who so easily assume his guilt. (The film doesn’t explicitly address this pattern in adults, but it’s well-documented. One need only think of the cases involving false charges of Satanic abuse that occurred in this country not so long ago.) The actor is aided immeasurably by Vinterberg’s intense yet naturalistic approach; the director, working with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and editors Anna Osterud and Janus Billeskov Jansen, brings a controlled urgency to the story that underscores Lucas’ dazed reaction to his ordeal and makes his occasional outbursts of rage all the more comprehensible and powerful. The other adults in the cast acquit themselves well too, but it’s the performances of the youngsters—the wonderfully unforced Wedderkopp and the anxious, angry Fogelstrom—that stand out beside Mikkelsen’s.
The picture does falter toward the close. A dramatic confrontation at the town’s Christmas Eve church celebration is a trifle pat, even though Mikkelsen’s playing of it is wrenching. Even worse is a dreamlike coda involving Marcus’ initiation as a rifle-toting man going out on his first hunt, which also sees a reconciliation of sorts between Lucas and Klara, still uncomprehending about the tragedy her actions have caused. But the visually gauzy, and frankly unexplained, re-establishment of the community’s equilibrium shatters the grimly authentic tone of what’s gone before, and it’s not really redeemed by the sudden reappearance of what lies beneath the ostensibly placid surface at the very close.
Nonetheless, up to that point “The Hunt” is a strong, moving portrait of a man shunned by the only society he knows for reasons he can’t understand, marked by a stunning lead performance from Mikkelsen.