Mads Mikkelsen has made a career out of playing monsters. His two most prominent roles (especially to American audiences), the “Casino Royale” villain Le Chiffre and the titular character on NBC’s “Hannibal,” have offered Mikkelsen opportunities to play all sides of the sick and the ruthless. As Le Chiffre, Mikkelsen was presented with an opportunity to sink his teeth into Bond villain hamminess, but instead chose to play the character understated, expressing a quiet maliciousness and hungry desperation. As Hannibal Lecter, Mikkeslen washes off the campy, almost parodistic stench of pop culture’s favorite cannibal and revives the role with the proper gory, purple decorum and terror befitting such a creature. More than any other actor, Mikkelsen is able to embody a particular gnawing and uncomfortable sense of dread and trepidation into any character he portrays, even when it is an upstanding kindergarten teacher caught in a trap of allegations and unwarranted scandal.
“The Hunt,” Demark’s official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, details the lead up to and fallout from an accusation of sexual assault. Lucas (Mikkelsen) is accused by Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of his young students and daughter of his best friend, of sexual abuse. As Klara’s parents and the parents of the other kindergarteners are informed about Lucas’ supposed sinful and immoral violation of a child, public opinion of Lucas quickly turns acidic and venomous, engulfing the whole of this small Danish village in a bid for the sanctity of their children and the damnation of the one who trespassed against them.
As a character, Lucas is a tightrope of duplicity and quiet solidarity. The role requires Mikkelsen to possess an outward sense of seedy reproach and yet be capable of conveying tragedy, existential despair, and pride when it is revealed in the third act that the accusations don’t hold water. In another actor’s hands, Lucas could have easily become a sad and limp representation of a man who merely slipped free of his judiciary noose due to a loophole; there is a version of this movie in which Lucas is just a cut-and-paste “Law & Order: SVU” crook of the week. But Mikkelsen takes to the role with tortured gusto. His Lucas is slithery enough to lend credibility to the notion that maybe he is a child molester, seeming removed enough from convention and human interaction to create an air of cryptic mystery. Yet, when it becomes clear that Lucas is innocent, Mikkelsen does not allow the sympathy for his character to get chased away. He transforms into a man built of confidence and strength, even as the town ostracizes him and continues to view him as a creature spat out of hell, not even allowed to buy pork chops at the local grocer.
Mikkelsen’s excellence is abetted by the direction of Thomas Vinterberg. No stranger to the idea of a small group of connected individuals being torn asunder by accusations of sexual assault, a theme explored in his Dogme 95 film “The Celebration,” Vinterberg lends that touch of mastered control to “The Hunt.” Shots are perpetually framed in a way that makes one feel claustrophobic, positioning the audience’s gaze uncomfortably close to the action of Lucas’ tribulations and the town’s animalistic treatment of him. When Vinterberg allows the audience a chance to visually breathe, Lucas appears detached and removed from his surroundings, far away, as if he were a leper. This staging, coupled with a soundtrack of ambience and the foreboding (there are approximately four music cues in the film’s two hours), underscores Lucas as a target of masochistic jest and righteous sport who is preyed upon by the mob mentality.
Cinematographer Charolotte Bruss Christensen carries over Vinterberg’s vision of despair into the images of the movie. Christensen’s work paints the cobblestones and forests of Denmark in gray shadow, allowing only the sharpness of reds and oranges to cut through the mire of speculation; autumn leaves make the ground awash in ominous, foreshadowed bloodshed. There’s a clarity to the frames that many cinematographers wouldn’t have instinctually chosen due to the ambiguity and bleakness of the material, but Christensen’s aesthetic choices serve “The Hunt” right. Never once does it feel safe for Lucas to leave his house.
Sexual assault is a serious topic that requires tact to be properly dealt with. As one character in the movie states, “Unfortunately, most of them are telling the truth.” What “The Hunt” does is take a hypothetical situation of a lie getting out of hand and watches as it corrosively destroys an innocent man’s life, something more possible than we may realize. The film presents us with an actor used to playing monsters and asks us to believe his innocence. Will we examine the evidence and see the truth, or will we accept his status as a monster on hearsay and hunt him just the same?
“The Hunt” is currently available to stream on Netflix.