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The distressing events in The Hunt unfold during the weeks before Christmas, a time that’s supposed to celebrate good will toward men and a grasp of the difference between naughty and nice. But in this carefully rendered Danish film, good will dissolves, the truth about allegedly bad behavior recedes, and one man’s life suddenly implodes.
Mads Mikkelsen, best known to American audiences as the villainous Le Chiffre in 2006’s Casino Royale and the murderous Dr. Lecter in NBC’s Hannibal, is perfectly cast as a kindergarten teacher slapped with allegations of pedophilia. His angular face is essentially a hologram. Tilt it one way and it projects goodness and light. But tilt it another and suddenly, darker contours emerge.
That darker image is the one that friends and colleagues in Lucas’ close-knit Danish village choose to see after Klara—-the daughter of his best friend, a student at his school, and a child with a voice as softly innocent as Cindy Lou Who’s—-implies that Lucas sexually abused her. Her statement comes from a place of confusion and hurt: She’s recently seen a pornographic picture, shown to her flippantly by her older brother and his friends, and developed a crush on Lucas that he gently told her is inappropriate. But once she’s made a vague but suggestive accusation in the principal’s presence and nodded silently under further questioning, she can’t take it back. As a result, Lucas’ life flips inside out. He’s immediately fired, potentially denied the opportunity to take custody of his teenage son, shunned by Klara’s father Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and, as additional allegations mount, transformed from trustworthy neighbor into town pariah.
The viewer is always fully aware of the contradiction between Lucas’ innocence and his perceived guilt, and that, in part, is what makes The Hunt so riveting. Director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg—-co-founder with Lars von Trier of the Dogme 95 cinematic movement that famously prized stripped down authenticity—- introduces that tension subtly and immediately via a pre-accusation scene in which several kindergarteners peer forebodingly at Lucas. Their plan, as it turns out, is merely to ambush him with some playful roughhousing. But the almost suspicious watchfulness in those little eyes tells us that something dangerous may reside in the space where this educator and his youthful charges meet.
Mikkelsen, named best actor at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for this performance, effectively keeps his outrage on low simmer while simultaneously threatening, at any moment, to hit high boil. Lucas learns quickly that in a small village where the acquisition of a hunting license qualifies as a rite of passage, anyone can find a target on his back. Or, to put it another way, he realizes that there is indeed something rotten in this cozy little corner of Denmark. But with The Hunt’s universally recognizable portrayals of protective parents, presumptuous school administrators, and their collective willingness to rush to judgment, Vinterberg also suggests that such rottenness is not limited to one community or even one country. The potential for its existence is everywhere, in all of us.