Through a series of stark, slowly suffocating scenes, Lukas (Mads Mikkelsen) loses nearly everything that he treasures. When we meet him, he's already wrestling with a recent divorce, but that's a cakewalk compared to what follows.
He works at a local kindergarten, which is not his chosen profession, but he is good with the children. He plays with them, teaches them and cleans them when the children get dirty—an essential skill in this environment. One child in particular has formed a bond with Lukas: his best friend's daughter, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). She has a vivid imagination, and Lukas once finds her at the grocery store after she had gotten herself lost by watching the lines on the road instead of where she was going.
Lukas has known Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) for decades. Their rural Danish community is one of those places families never leave, planting roots for generations at a time. The old friends go hunting together with about a half-dozen other men from town, almost ritualistically. And Lukas needs this kind of companionship to help counteract his quiet, empty house.
One evening, after Lukas mildly disciplines Klara during playtime, the girl tells the school administrator that she doesn't like Lukas, that he showed her his penis. This didn't come out of nowhere for the 5-year-old; her teenage brother and his friend were joking about an erection they found on the Internet, and she merely aped their conversation, unaware of what it meant.
You can see the direction The Hunt is going to go, but you may not predict the back alleys it takes you down or all the stops along the way. Foreign films can get away with being more methodical and purposeful, and in fact the pacing for this is perfect. If an American remake comes our way, this is where everything will go wrong: Once we get a sense for the predicament Lukas finds himself in, we kind of want to skip to the end simply because this is hard to watch.
Director Thomas Vinterberg won't let us off the hook that easily. We see, almost one by one, the teachers and parents from the kindergarten turn against Lukas. We hear of other charges coming his way, and we watch as shopkeepers refuse to serve him and throw cans at his head after he's been roughed up and thrown out of their stores. In other words, we see the wheels come off this guy's life, in a town where everybody knows him and, now, everybody reviles him.
Of course, Vinterberg leaves plenty of room for doubt. We don't know the circumstances behind Lukas' divorce or why his last job didn't work out ... maybe this guy really did molest his best friend's daughter, a girl who only knows how to describe it in adolescent terms she heard from her brother. And Mikkelsen's performance doesn't provide enough cues about his innocence or guilt, either.
About Mikkelsen: You probably know him as the nefarious Le Chiffre from Casino Royale. He was a terrific villain in that, and it's become something of his stereotype. Now he's playing Hannibal Lecter on TV, because good Christ, they can't let that character die. But watch him in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky or last year's A Royal Affair. There's a lot more depth than unemotional villains would indicate.
But that slightly reptilian quality helps keep Lukas' thoughts and emotions at arm's length. Obviously, he's going through the wringer, but Mikkelsen doesn't let us close enough to see if he's been victimized or caught. He's probably a hell of a poker player.
For his efforts here, Mikkelsen took home some hardware at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, and it's richly deserved. Again, if you think of the way this type of story would be presented by Hollywood impulses, what we see out of Mikkelsen is totally unexpected, doubly so if you're only used to his most famous performances.
As terrific as he is, this really is Thomas Vinterberg's movie. Like many international directors, he's largely unknown in the United States, but this should get him noticed. In addition to demonstrating a calm hand behind the camera, he co-wrote this unsettling, bare-knuckle script. Hopefully, he'll have an opportunity to export his abilities to a wider audience sooner than later.
Perhaps the film's best scene features Klara brought back into the school administrator's office to tell a social worker about her accusations. She isn't forthcoming and the social worker begins creating scenarios that, as far as we know, never occurred between the girl and Lukas. It's not clear if he's leading the witness, searching for the truth or stacking the deck. Nor does his motivation bubble to the surface. That sort of ambiguity goes on for two hours and the suspense is excruciating and masterfully choreographed.
Although it's been a pretty bad year at the movies, that doesn't make The Hunt any less impressive. It just makes it harder to avoid if you really want to see great filmmaking.