Child molestation is at once the most heinous crime a person can be accused of—even murderers and other rapists in prison treat pedophiles like pariahs—and the most difficult charge to refute. Small children can’t articulate traumatic experiences they don’t understand, so adults naturally tend to err on the side of assuming the worst. And the notion that a child might lie about something like that just seems unthinkable, even though kids lie all the time, often for no very good reason at all. The Danish witch-hunt melodrama The Hunt, in which kindergarten teacher Mads Mikkelsen gets falsely accused of having abused one of his students—the daughter of his best friend, no less—suggests that once even the vaguest suggestion of improper behavior rears its ugly head, you’re pretty much screwed. It’s your word against that of an adorable little girl, and even if she subsequently recants, by then it’s far too late.
Far and away the best aspect of The Hunt is how it handles the events that lead to Mikkelsen’s persecution. It’s actually the girl (Annika Wedderkopp) who “transgresses”—she has a goofy little preadolescent crush on him, as sometimes happens with kids who’ve imperfectly processed what they see adults doing. The movie’s cruelest irony is that, when she presents him with a token of her affection, he handles the situation perfectly, with exquisite sensitivity and respect for her feelings. Nonetheless, she feels wounded (in part due to a misunderstanding) and impulsively says the wrong thing to the wrong person, setting wheels in motion that soon threaten to crush Mikkelsen and then run over him multiple times, just to make sure he doesn’t get up. All of his denials fall on deaf ears, and even his best friend (Thomas Bo Larsen), who’s known him for many years, doesn’t hesitate to grab a torch and a pitchfork.
Director Thomas Vinterberg is no stranger to this sort of emotional hysteria, having made his name with The Celebration, which pivots on a similar accusation (albeit made by an adult child many years later). And after a decade of ill-conceived experiments like It’s All About Love and Dear Wendy, it’s good to see him back in quasi-Dogme mode, focusing on intimate behavioral details in a heightened but fundamentally naturalistic setting. Yet while The Hunt is very well made, it’s also exactly what viewers would expect, given its subject matter. Mikkelsen gives an impassioned performance, but his character is a pure, noble victim, and the film merely observes sorrowfully as his life falls apart, with special emphasis on the destruction of his closest friendship. None of the complexity of that initial interaction between teacher and lovestruck little girl carries over into the town’s reaction, which closely resembles that of the villagers in Frankenstein. It’s like watching a deer run from shotguns for two hours—it evokes some sympathy, but that’s about all.