(MA, 110 minutes.) Opens Thursday.
Early in Thomas Vinterberg's calmly harrowing drama The Hunt, a man who has just been told that he is accused of sexually abusing a child leaves the kindergarten at which he works to walk home. As played by the deceptive Mads Mikkelsen, Lucas projects quietly roiling confusion. As he walks forward, the camera backs away, as if the weight of his unease is literally pushing it.
The Hunt - Trailer
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The Hunt - Trailer
A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son's custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie.
That sense of psychological control - where a character's emotional state feels intrinsically linked to the mechanics of movie-making - is typical of Vinterberg's impressive movie, easily the best he's made since 1998's The Celebration, the Dane's breakthrough work and a calling card for the short-lived Dogme 95 movement.
Certainly the two pictures are linked: in The Celebration, a grown son accuses his father of molesting both him and his twin sister when they were young, while in The Hunt, a small child annoyed by an adult carer who has reprimanded her carelessly suggests abuse.
In both cases, Vinterberg examines the dynamic of groups faced with unexpected revelations, charting how mistakes are made by those closest to those who suffer, tearing existing bonds asunder.
With its echoes of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, the story has no pretence of being a mystery - the divorced Lucas is innocent but the remarks by Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), swiftly grow from accusation to presumption of guilt via process and rumour. People's need to feel as though they are doing the right thing in response leads them to do wrong.
With his thick lips and implacable presence, Mikkelsen is best known internationally for playing villains in films such as 2006's Casino Royale, but here he stays composed, despite the sudden rejection by his former friends and acquaintances and the close inspection of the hand-held camera.
Grace and anger powerfully struggle to be his response. Vinterberg shows the minor rituals of a community, the drunken playfulness of old friends, and lets you wonder whether that was real, or whether Theo threatening to shoot Lucas dead was the genuine dynamic all along.
The film's naturalism is expressed with a rich sense of place and sudden eruptions of violence. The Hunt is close to unbearable, but impossible to deny.