Danish director Thomas Vinterberg thought he was past pedophilia.
His 1998 breakout, "The Celebration," tackled the dark, scary topic, focusing on the largely sexual secrets revealed at a family birthday party involving possible past child molestations.
A few months after the film opened, Vinterberg was approached by a prominent psychologist bearing reports of children who had imagined abuses that had never happened, and how their deceits nevertheless would spread "like a virus," the director recalled. But that was the beginning and end of the conversation.
"I was not ready to revisit those kind of topics, so I didn't ever read what he gave me," Vinterberg said. Ten years after the encounter, the director picked up the papers, more out of guilt than curiosity. "I was blown away by what I read," the filmmaker said.
And with that Vinterberg's new film, "The Hunt," was born.
The film, which opened in limited release on Friday, was written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm and stars Mads Mikkelsen ("Casino Royale," "A Royal Affair") as a kindergarten teacher named Lucas. Recently divorced and in a new school job, Lucas befriends a lonely student named Klara.
When the young girl decides that Lucas isn't showing her adequate affection, she concocts a story about how the teacher exposed himself to her. Lucas' supervisor, who helps embellish Klara's story by asking her leading questions, readily accepts Klara's allegations as gospel, saying, "I don't believe children would lie in that way."
The invented allegation promptly takes hold in the school and the community, with Lucas not only presumed guilty but also cast out by some of his closest friends, including Klara's parents.
Unlike a Hollywood version of the same basic plot, "The Hunt" isn't a whodunit. It's clear from the very start that Lucas is innocent. If anyone is guilty of anything, it's his acquaintances for so easily assuming that beneath Lucas' compassionate exterior lies some inconceivable monster.
"There was no way that we wanted to turn this into a thriller — that would be way too banal," said Mikkelsen, who won the best actor award at last year's Cannes Film Festival for his performance in "The Hunt." "This is instead a journey of how enormous love can be turned into enormous fear and then hate."
Rather than setting "The Hunt" in a major metropolis, Vinterberg situated the story in close-knit town where people drop into their neighbor's homes (and lives) without a moment's pause. "It was the best way to tell the story," Mikkelsen said. "If he was in Copenhagen or New York, there would be plenty of places he could hide himself."
Despite the subject matter, "The Hunt" does occasionally have some lighter moments, particularly involving Lucas' teenage son, Marcus. And Vinterberg said he would change his camera angles during production in order to avoid making Mikkelsen look "too creepy." Said the director: "It was a challenge not to disappear into complete darkness."
If audiences are startled to see how willingly Lucas' friends are to judge Klara's accusations as truth, especially those who remember the McMartin Preschool case from the 1980s, they may be equally frustrated that Lucas does not more forcefully defend himself from the witch hunt.
Mikkelsen said he initially shared the same concern before realizing that his character is doing the best he can given the circumstances.
"I did get this feeling in my stomach, 'This is so unfair. Why doesn't he do more? Why does he react in this way,'" the actor said in his initial assessment of Lucas' actions. In discussing his doubts with Vinterberg, however, Mikkelsen realized that Lucas is simply operating in a different world from everybody else.
"He finds himself starring in an absurdist drama," the actor said. "He's fighting in a rational way, while everyone around him is irrational."
Mikkelsen said that beyond the confines of the film, pedophilia still can generate extreme, and sometimes unwarranted, distress. "We have become so afraid of the topic that we have become afraid of doing natural things with our families and friends," Mikkelsen said. "Today you can't take a picture of your kid jumping into a swimming pool without some big guy will knock you over and take your camera away."
Vinterberg said he considers "The Hunt" to be "the antithesis" of "The Celebration," and believes the latter film "was part of the hysteria of the 1990s." He welcomes the idea of both films being in the same DVD box as figurative bookends about pedophilia.
The topic doesn't scream "summer movie," and the film's final frames, which unfold during a deer hunt, suggest that whatever Lucas has overcome so far, his battle for the truth is far from complete.
"The sentimental part of me wanted it to end happily," the director said. "But I found that what we did was more truthful. The spoken word cannot be taken back. This man is marked, and he will be forever."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times