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On Target

film the-hunt-1Fear trumps reason in complex Danish drama 'The Hunt'

A disappointed child's remark brings lives to the brink of ruin in Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's complex drama The Hunt. The story takes shape in the treacherous and fascinating twilight zone between acute moral responsibility and witch-hunting. Not a lot happens in the narrative except ordinary people going about their daily routines—talking, laughing, drinking, making love, going to work—but because the focus is on the ever-unpredictable vagaries of human nature, the film plays like a compelling, edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Although Vinterberg (Celebration) is a founding member of the ill-advised Dogma school of Danish filmmaking, The Hunt is mercifully unburdened by shaky hand-held camera work or attempted real-time narrative constraints. It flows over time and place at its own pace, like a normal movie, and is so much stronger because of it. It takes place in a small, contemporary Danish suburb on the edge of a forest, where the men of the town initiate their sons into manhood during the annual deer hunt, as their families have done for generations.

The great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen gives a performance of astonishing force and subtlety as protagonist Lucas. Completely integrated into the life of the town, yet somewhat apart, Lucas is divorced and lives alone; his adored teenage son lives elsewhere, with Lucas' prickly ex-wife. (In a wry running gag, Lucas' loyal dog barks like crazy if anyone mentions the name of his ex.) But Lucas loves kids, and works at the elementary school, where little boys lie in wait each morning to pounce on him. He's also protective of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen); she sometimes stays after school so Lucas can walk her home from kindergarten when she claims she can't remember the way.

One day, a child says something vague to the school principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), that makes her think something inappropriate has happened between the child and Lucas. The child never accuses Lucas of actually doing anything, but a direct accusation turns out not to be necessary; when a school psychologist is called in—by which time the child won't even repeat the original remark—the doc fills in the blanks with imagined sordid details, to which the frightened child merely nods.

Which is all it takes for Lucas to become a pariah in the close-knit community. In fact, there has been a fleeting moment when the affectionate child tried to act out and was gently corrected by Lucas, resulting in momentary hurt feelings. But since no one tells him who is "accusing" him, the mystified Lucas can't explain. But it doesn't matter. Vinterberg shows with scalpel-like precision how fear and misinformation spread like a contagion throughout the town, infecting everyone.

(A parents meeting at the school turns into an indoctrination session. As soon as they are warned to watch out for "symptoms" of sexual abuse—like nightmares—every parent in town is suddenly convinced their child as another "victim.")

Meanwhile, Lucas' relationship with Theo and his family dissolves, when Lucas realizes they believe he might be guilty. Also impaired is Lucas' budding romance with sultry, savvy Nadia (Alexandra Rapaport), a Polish immigrant who does housekeeping at the school. A rock is thrown through Lucas' window, and when his son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm), finally comes to visit, the boy is told he and his father can no longer shop at the town's grocery store. And soon enough, the police are called in.

Vinterberg doesn't discredit the idea that child abuse exists, but he's more interested in how the snowballing effects of fear can undermine reason. Convinced that "children don't lie," in these matters, the adults fail to notice that they, themselves, have force-fed lies into the mouths of their children. The consequences for Lucas, the designated target, can be devastating, although Vinterberg's plot takes many unexpected detours as the story plays out, engrossing to the very end.

Still, it's hard to believe the film could be quite as effective with any other actor as Lucas. Mikkelsen is amazing; a provocative mix of easygoing decency, dread, and slowly kindling outrage. Best known to U.S. audiences in villainous roles (Casino Royale; Hannibal on TV), Mikkelsen won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for this quietly commanding performance. 

THE HUNT ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four)

With Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, and Annika Wedderkopp. Written by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg.

A Magnolia release. Rated R. 115 minutes. In Danish with English subtitles.

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