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Per Arnesen

Mads Mikkelsen and Alexandra Rapaport in The Hunt.

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★★★★✩

The Hunt

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp

Rated R

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It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that squeezed my heart and had me gripping my armrest, suffocating in the knowledge that my voice can never reach the actor on the screen. And all through the brilliant acting of a psychologically infused small-town drama.

The Hunt is a simple story, but one that spirals down and down and down and down…

A kindergarten teacher, Lucas (the extraordinary Mads Mikkelsen), is wrongly accused of molesting his best friend’s daughter Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who herself is caught in the middle of parental disputes and finds in her teacher an attentive friend for whom she harbors a little crush.

The accusation begins when Klara, spiteful and hurt at having her crush dismissed, makes up a little story based on bits and pieces she has heard and collected from her teenage brother, which she tells to the director of the kindergarten (Susse Wold). The director takes the fantastic story at its face value, and soon the word spreads, taking on the form and force of sheer mass hysteria.

The film puts you at the center of the action. You are a witness. You know, throughout, how the falsehoods came to be adopted as the truth, how no one is at fault, how no one acted wrongly, and yet there is no way you can be passive in your seat. You wish, with all your heart, that the misunderstandings will be resolved, that the panic will be curbed, that this or that person will not say something at that particular minute in that particular way. It is a nail-biting film.

The fear cuts deeply as you witness how easily the situation deteriorates, how a once loved community member is rapidly cast out, losing the trust of close friends, and a life made in the town where his family has lived for generations.

Director Thomas Vinterberg is brilliant at giving us all the information we need to fill in the blanks without spoon-feeding us. We learn of the community’s traditions and the rituals that accompany them, starting with “The Hunt” itself, and of the braided bonds of family and friendship that sustain the town.

The film depicts the heart-wrenching transition of Lucas from stoicism to desperation. Already a sad figure — a divorced father suffering financial difficulties and fighting for the custody of his teenage son — we witness him driven to somehow salvage and preserve his dignity. And Klara, the center of the hurricane and beholder of the truth, loses all control over what is made out of her little tale. Even though she eventually takes it back, it’s too late — the adults won’t accept that the tale is false. They seem to want to be convinced of Lucas’ guilt, and the need to hear what they want prevails over listening. It is terrifying.

I could not help but remember the McMartin preschool case in LA, and wonder why we are so prone to neglect questioning statements made by naturally story-enhancing and world-making children. On a more disturbing note, the film left me with the feeling that, regardless of how well an individual may lead his life, he may still be defenseless against the power of a crowd.