Gripping ‘Hunt’ illustrates lies’ destructive power

Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Hunt” is a tragic drama from Denmark that’s made all the more heartbreaking because it hinges on an innocent misunderstanding. It’s a deeply engrossing and intimate story of collective paranoia and false guilt, in which a childish remark inadvertently unravels a man’s life.

That remark comes from a little girl named Klara, who’s maybe 5 or 6 and has a close relationship with one of her teachers, a soft-spoken family friend named Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen). It’s apparent that Klara’s mother and father pay little attention to her, so she relies on Lucas to assume the role of surrogate parent, listening to her stories and walking her to school.

However, Klara’s naïve displays of affection toward Lucas go a little too far, and when she kisses him on the mouth one day, he tells her it’s inappropriate. Klara feels wounded and, as very young children are wont to do, she tells another teacher how much she hates Lucas.

It’s a meaningless tantrum. But Klara’s comments make it sound as if Lucas has sexually abused her, which sets the school into a flurry of gossip and hushed accusations. Lucas is, of course, not guilty, and Klara certainly doesn’t understand the severity of the circumstances, even when she’s dragged into an interrogation with a child psychologist who twists his questions so as to deliberately incriminate Lucas.

The second half of “The Hunt” deals with the fallout from the scandal, as the townspeople react to the allegations and Lucas attempts in vain to uphold his innocence. Seemingly everyone, save for Lucas’ teenage son, has turned against him, and even Klara’s father (who also happens to be Lucas’ best friend) starts to consider the aspersions thrown Lucas’ way.

Some critics have maintained that the film’s portrayal of mob mentality is simplistic and unbelievable, but I don’t think so. Vinterberg examines with great complexity how unsubstantiated rumors can transform themselves into truths, how disbelief becomes dreadful realization and finally gives way to violent contempt.

At the center of it all is Mikkelsen, best known to American audiences as the title character in the NBC series “Hannibal,” in an assured, solemn, measured performance that won Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s all the more powerful because Mikkelsen plays it all with his face and eyes: He’s a man too proud to be overcome by emotion, and yet we can see that he’s broken beyond repair.

Vinterberg, whose 1998 film “The Celebration” dealt with a family confronting a past of sexual abuse, handles the material just right. There’s no grandstanding or gratuitous plot turns, and when tensions boil over during a Christmas Eve church service, he avoids dramatic contrivance and uses the scene to find truth in his characters. Vinterberg builds unbearable tension through quiet moments and small revelations; this is an intimate drama with the relentless propulsion of a thriller.

What’s so effective, and ultimately so painful, about “The Hunt” is the inevitability of its outcome: Whether Lucas is cleared of the charges or his supposed transgressions are forgiven, his soul is irrevocably tarnished. The film’s epilogue shrouds Lucas’ fate in further mystery: Even though he’s not guilty, will he ever be truly innocent again?

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