When the Hunter Becomes Hunted

Mads Mikkelsen delivers what might turn out to be an Oscar-winning performance for The Hunt, (although this being a foreign language film makes it rather unlikely). He has already won Best Actor at Cannes and deservedly so, his acting is an astonishing tour de force, tight-of-jaw, cut-glass cheekbones, seething with unresolved passions and a highly moral code that propels him through every frame.

What is hard to stomach is the basic plot of The Hunt. Lucas (Mikkelsen) is wrongly accused of child molestation at the kindergarten where he works. The tiny accuser, Klara, is a wide-eyed troubled spirit, clearly disturbed by her parents' tempestuous relationship and traumatized by her elder brother's pornography, shown casually on a tablet device, in passing. The words her brother uses are those she echoes in her false testimony.

Child abuse is so painful a subject, until recently entirely shoved under the carpet, ignored and used as an instrument of control by people in power. One wishes the director, Thomas Vinterberg, had chosen almost anything else. Or maybe not -- perhaps Lucas had to be wrongly accused of something so horrifying that good people mobilize instantly to address it.

Here's where the true motive of the story lies. It is not in the accusation itself, or even Lucas' shocked disbelief that stops him denying it outright instantly. It is the reaction of his friends, family and neighbors. It makes it clear that Society exists on such fragile fault lines that when one of its members - and of such a close-knit community as well -- is seen to have transgressed -- he is not only punished harshly but exiled.

Exile from society has always been used to penalize and in effect condemn to death. In Ancient Greece and Rome exile was a severe castigation because the exiled were removed from their home, their status and thus their very survival. In The Hunt, while the investigation surges on, Lucas is exiled from his job, his lover, his family, his friends and even the local shops so he cannot buy food.

The one place the townspeople cannot ban him from is church -- did we mention the film takes place over Christmas, with snow falling and dark nights that bring no solace? The accusation from a child is even more emotive at a time when small towns usually thrive on goodwill to all men.

Masculinity is a key driver of the plot. This is a town where men hunt, are given guns before they shave the first down off their cheeks, have families and do everything to protect them. This is a patriarchy of vast bearded men who drink and fight and kill. But they are portrayed as gentle Nordic giants, lovingly helping each other home after good-natured drunken card games and teasing Lucas mercilessly when a woman calls. It is when their families are threatened that these very men turn violent. And it is shocking and senseless. When they strike -- they strike -- and it is chilling.

This is an astonishing piece of cinema. In keeping with Thomas Vinterberg and his fellow directors' Dogme 95 manifesto, where they pledged to strip film down to its essential story-telling nature, there are no special effects, no warning musical cues, nothing but the acting and breathtaking landscapes. Cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen, holds the camera steady, unflinching and with an exquisite eye for both detail and the wide expanse of the natural world, where hidden dangers lurk unseen.

It is worth seeing for the performances, the cinematography and the clever twists and turns of the script. Little is given away. There are constant surprises. Especially in the final sixty seconds. A relentless and brilliant piece of work.