On one level, Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" is a species of "social problem" cinema; but more compellingly it's a slow-burn thriller. The publicity tries to avoid specifying the film's central issue, but one is likely to guess early on what the focus will be. And it's impossible to talk about the film without "spoiling" this "surprise"; in any case, it's sprung on us less than 15 minutes in, so nothing in the rest of this review deserves a spoiler alert.
Mads Mikkelsen (the villain in "Casino Royale") stars as Lucas, a mild-mannered 40-something teacher in a small Danish town. He and his ex-wife argue over his visitation hours with his teenage son (Lasse Fogelstrom); at the same time, budget cutbacks have resulted in his school being closed, so he's forced to work at the local kindergarten. In short, his life is not going well...and it's about to get much, much worse.
Among his charges is Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the five-year-old daughter of his longtime best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). She loves spending time with Lucas and walking his dog. One day, Klara — after what she perceives as a rejection — mischievously gets revenge by suggesting to Grethe (Susse Wold), the school's principal, that she has seen Lucas's naked erect penis. Grethe takes the suggestion very seriously, immediately informing the police and bringing in a psychologist. He in turn pushes Klara to repeat her statement and plants the notion that any denial is simply the result of her traumatized mind wisely suppressing the horrible events. The other students are interviewed in ways that push them to validate the investigators' worst suspicions.
As word spreads, Lucas's life rapidly deteriorates. He becomes a pariah; his ex tries to get his visitation rights completely revoked. Local shops refuse his business. Close friends either avoid him or beat him up; soon the violence escalates and threatens what's left of his family.
It's the kind of persecution usually described as a "witch hunt," in honor of the colonial New Englanders who executed at least a dozen people during an outbreak of religious mob hysteria in the late 1600s. We might like to think rationality has moved us past our benighted forebears, but Vinterberg's story will instantly feel familiar to Angelenos over 40. It is a simplified version of the McMartin Preschool scandal that dominated local headlines almost thirty years ago. (I have no idea whether Vinterberg is aware of McMartin; sadly, one suspects that, during the Satanism/false memory heydays of the '80s and '90s, similar cases popped up around the world.)
Most movies usually juice up real life events and make them more extreme, but the details of Lucas's story are far more mundane and plausible than those of the McMartin case, which would never be believable in a "naturalistic" film. (Cue Mark Twain on truth, fiction, etc.)
The second most important factor in the film's success is Vinterberg's crisp style. The most important is Mikkelsen's performance. Like many of his roles, Lucas is often quiet and withdrawn. With all that's being done to him, he rarely roars; even when yelling or fighting back, his face is not contorted. Mikkelsen brilliantly conveys his inner anguish through the smallest facial movements. We can see into his soul at every moment ... far better, sadly, than any of Lucas's neighbors.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).