On its surface, “The Hunt” is simply an icily seductive Danish suspense film. There is a laconic leading man with a rocky past (Mads Mikkelsen), taboo subject matter, a colorful cast of supporting players and a gripping case of injustice at the center of things.
But “The Hunt” is only deceptively a genre-bound thriller. It’s a contemporary horror story about a respected man’s descent into a Kafkaesque nightmare of denunciations, dread and danger. It has an insinuating pull that takes us into the dark realms of the human psyche. The opening scenes could be a tourist brochure for the Danish provinces, but it builds to an excursion through small-town Hell.
Mikkelsen is flat-out brilliant, wasting not a gesture as Lucas, a divorced fortysomething who has taken up day-care work after his teaching job was downsized. Rather than seek greener pastures, he remains in his provincial hometown, hunting and carousing with his lifelong buddies while working to win custody of his teenage son. While there is some speculation about why he lives alone, he’s valued for his affectionate relationships with the children in his care.
Lucas is a frequent guest at the home of his pal Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) and his wife, Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing), and an unofficial uncle to their little blond angel, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). One day Klara goes on a walk to escape her parents’ latest argument, forgets her way home, and feels comforted when Lucas walks her home. Later, an ill-judged gesture of affection from one to the other triggers a rejection that sparks ugly suspicions, leading questions, half-truths and outright lies.
Expecting his civilized friends to come to their heads when passions cool, Lucas bides his time. Big mistake. People assume the worst. Neighbors he’s known for decades turn malicious and malevolent overnight, their moral collapse fueled by a misguided sense of righteous indignation. He’s excommunicated from society, vilified by his childhood friends and barred from the local stores. The film mounts excruciating tension as the witchhunt escalates from emotional to physical attacks. The villagers’ mix of old-world chivalry and cruelty makes them scarier than any troupe of zombies.
“The Hunt” is directed with brooding power and ruthless precision by Thomas Vinterberg, a fluid storyteller and a shocking choreographer of violence. He can turn a cozy schoolroom, church nave or bachelor flat into a prison cell. He draws engrossing work from his performers, too. It’s astonishing what he gets from 7-year-old first-timer Wedderkopp in a demanding role.
Mikkelsen, channeling the decency and reserve of a Danish Gregory Peck, bottles up his fury until the pressure becomes unbearable. When he strikes back it’s a fists-in-the-air moment, but it’s far from the end of the struggle.
“The Hunt” reverberates with the anxieties of the current moment, when we fear hidden enemies and wonder whom to trust. It’s thoughtful about the social uses of violence, whether as a tool of the powerful, a rite of initiation, or a spur to communal hysteria. The story is simultaneously tough-minded and compassionate about the human condition, noting that those swept up into irrationality are in some sense victims, too.
You leave “The Hunt” unsettled in the best sense. Its images and implications are likely to stay in your head a long time.