Fewer than six million people live in Denmark, but judging by that nation's film industry, it feels like a much bigger country. Going all the way back to the silent era, the Danes have specialized in a brand of religious and moral melodrama, from Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc through the current generation that includes Susanne Bier (her upcoming American film is an adaptation of Ron Rash's Serena) and, of course, Lars von Trier (his new film, Nymphomaniac, comes out next year).
And then there's The Hunt, a tale of a man falsely accused of child molestation, which marks a triumphant return to form by Thomas Vinterberg. As a signatory of the Dogme 95 manifesto, Vinterberg was an early star of the cinema's closest equivalent to punk rock. In 1998, Vinterberg's The Celebration became the first commercial Dogme success; this tale of the worst Danish family reunion since Hamlet was shot on video, without set lighting or other tools of cinematic artifice. Vinterberg's career took a mainstream turn, but a couple of English-language films bombed, and by the mid-aughts his output included Blur and Metallica videos.
With The Hunt, however, Vinterberg reaches back to an odd incident that occurred in his Celebration days, when a renowned child psychologist showed up at his doorstep one night ranting about the pseudo-science emerging around the sexual abuse of children. A decade later, Vinterberg recovered the material and wrote a film that combines the curdling Old World milieu of The Celebration with the small-town persecutions of such American classics as Arthur Miller's The Crucible and Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."
At first glance, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) seems like too much of a calendar stud to be a kindergarten assistant in a small Danish town. He's recently lost his job teaching older children, and his marriage has ended acrimoniously, with limited custodial rights to his adolescent son. Still, Lucas keeps up appearances, carousing with his hunting buddies and living alone in a giant country house. It's not really explained how a schoolteacher came to reside in such a mansion. But it sets him apart from the townspeople who live in more modest circumstances and enhances his loneliness and vulnerability. It also provides a plausibly sinister scene for the crimes he will be accused of.
The film's narrative of false accusations of child abuse will resonate with Americans old enough to remember the panics of the 1980s. In The Hunt, we see the pattern repeat itself: A lonely child who'd sought friendship with Lucas gets temporarily angry with him and makes a petulant accusation. A so-called expert is called in, and he uses leading questions to coax the child into repeating (and embellishing) her story. Rumors spread, and other children come forward. Before long, Lucas is a pariah in his hometown.
It's a familiar story that could be ripped from any cable television show, but what elevates The Hunt is the Danish penchant—and Vinterberg's—for spectacular melodrama amid rustic European elegance. A walk in the woods blurs distinctions between the hunters and the hunted. A scene of ordinary humiliation in a grocery store becomes an occasion for the violent display of a wounded animal. A Christmas religious service becomes a setting for angry denunciations.
Welcome back, Thomas Vinterberg.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Parental advisory."