Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is middle aged and divorced, and lives in a small village in Denmark where he works as a teaching assistant at the local kindergarten. He’s kindly and well regarded by all, but his gentle character is suffused with a streak of resigned sadness arising from loneliness and a bitter custody dispute with his angry ex-wife. After receiving good news about his custody battle, his life is suddenly plunged into turmoil when the petulant child of a close friend falsely accuses him of molestation, and the entire community turns against him.
The Hunt is not a film about paedophilia; it is a film about the tragic swiftness in which a life can be ruined by a single accusation (innocent or otherwise), and the reprehensible willingness with which people will believe the worst of others. Mikkelsen, who won the Best Actor Award for his performance as Lukas at Cannes last May, is outstanding as a man who is helpless to defend himself and heartbroken that all but one of his close friends won’t give him any benefit of the doubt. His long, angled face and piercing eyes, which can effortlessly move from melancholy to bewilderment or fury with very little in the way of strenuous change(s) of expression, is always a marvel to behold, and he remains my favourite contemporary European actor.
Writer director Thomas Vinterberg is skilfully economic in his pacing of the story, providing enough exposition to establish empathy with Lucas and the seemingly idyllic warmth of his community, but moving quickly into the heart of the matter, the aftermath of the life-destroying accusation levelled against him. It’s made abundantly clear that Lucas is not guilty of the vile crime he’s accused of, which makes his plight truly heartbreaking to witness, as he struggles to make sense of what’s happening to him while drowning in the violent loathing of everyone around him, who just moments before were his friends and neighbours.
When I saw The Hunt at TIFF in September, the last moments of the film elicited gasps from several people in the audience. Vinterberg brilliantly sets up what feels like partial, slow redemption for Lucas, or a return to a semblance of sanity within and mercy from the community, only to rock us back in our seats with a final, haunting scene, seemingly saying in closing that while people are quick to condemn they are far, far slower to forgive.