Twenty minutes into The Hunt, writer/director Thomas Vinterberg’s grim slow-burner about a man unfairly accused of a heinous crime, protagonist Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) stalks and shoots a deer. A few scenes later the symbolism becomes obvious: he will be the creature caught in a scope, and the weapon used against him will be public opinion.
To accentuate a sense of dread and claustrophobia, Vinterberg bases his story in a small Danish community where Chinese whispers escalate into violence and confrontation. Lucas works at a kindergarten where he is loved by the kids and appreciated by colleagues until a young girl (Annika Wedderkopp) who knows no better suggests inappropriate conduct has taken place.
The film takes its time moving between key moments, but it’s clear early on this is a cautionary story about not leaping to conclusions, the importance of assumed innocence and the dangers of mob justice. Vinterberg stays on message, rolling out a predictable array of confrontations.
You can quickly sense The Hunt is a melodrama because the story dictates the movements of the characters and not vice versa, the framing of the plot forcing the characters’ hands in a series of tense reactions. Most of them result in familiar plot points: best friends become enemies, a brick is hurled through a window, Lucas can’t buy a couple of chops at the supermarket without getting clobbered, etcetera.
Strong performances and tight visual construction disguise the fact we’ve seen this all before, from films that explore very similar themes (notably 2008’s Doubt, a more compelling and nuanced work) to films that share degrees of familiarity related to the persecution of innocent people including We Need to Talk About Kevin (2008), The Insider (1999) and Evil Angels (1988).
Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast. He has a haunted, villainous way about him, the mark of a man whose sins have been slashed across his face. The sort of guy who can’t buy an ice cream without looking creepy. Mikkelsen’s sullen, introverted style (awarded with a Best Actor gong at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) seems to make the performance come naturally. Imagine Alan Rickman or Steve Buscemi in a dark drama playing kindergarten teachers accused of pedophilia and you’re halfway there.
Nevertheless it’s a strong performance. Like the film, Mikkelsen is cold and unsettling, despite our knowledge from the outset that his character is innocent. Also like the film, there is something clinical about it, a slumber from which he and The Hunt is only occasionally roused. There is one brief but powerful scene inside a church where sinners line the pews, but are not necessarily guilty of the crimes they’ve been accused of.
The Hunt’s Australian theatrical release date: May 30, 2013