At courthouses in some of the most infamous child abuse cases of recent history, there's always a crowd out front, always someone with a poster that says "I Believe the Children."
As if children don't lie. As if adults don't project their worst nightmares onto whatever accusations a child might naively make and wish he or she hadn't.
And those who are falsely accused pass through a living nightmare of shame, ostracization and social, personal and financial ruin.
"The Hunt" is a Danish film about a pre-school teacher, falsely accused. The adoring daughter of his best friend gets mad when he refuses her inappropriate kisses. A word from her to the credulous head mistress at the school, and Lucas is through the looking glass of the small Danish town he calls home.
Lucas ( Mads Mikkelsen) is divorced with a teen son who would rather live with him than mom. Lucas and his mates are a rowdy crowd -- hard-drinking, loud-singing hunters.
Theo ( Thomas Bo Larsen) is his best friend, half of a less-than-ideal marriage. Her parents' quarreling makes kindergarten-age Klara ( Annika Wedderkopp, a wonder) use Lucas as an oasis. He walks her to school, teaches her with the same firm, compassionate hand he does the others. But she's got a teen brother exposing her to sex talk at an age she doesn't understand. And she's prone to smooching on teacher.
"A kiss on the lips is only for Mom and Dad," Lucas gently corrects (in Danish, with English subtitles).
"I hate Lucas," Klara resolves, saying that in front of the cautious principal Grethe ( Susse Wold). Grethe questions Klara, leadingly. Next thing Lucas knows, he's undergoing an inquisition -- accused, relieved of duties, as good as convicted by his female peers. And there are no secrets in small towns. His life unravels. He is threatened, assaulted, shunned by one and all. His son ( Lasse Fogelstrom) is confused. His girlfriend ( Alexandra Rapaport) wonders who she's gotten involved with.
It's a pretty conventional "Lifetime Original Movie" sort of story. But co-writer / director Thomas Vinterberg ("Dear Wendy") makes it work by building a sense of frustrating unease into it all. The cause and effect is reasonably clear to us, but not to anyone involved in this story. No one person can speak up and say, "Wait, she said this because of that and that, and it's all just a colossal misunderstanding." Life is like that, muddying up clarity, denying closure.
The mere accusation is enough, and Lucas rarely gets his say or even a chance to fend off the whispers and physical attacks that come with this stigma.
Mikkelsen, a weak Bond villain in "Casino Royale" but mesmerizing in everything else (he is TV's "Hannibal"), suffers stoically and wears his confusion on his sleeve. He keeps his fury hidden. You wonder, from start to end, if he will survive this, if the truth will ever come out, if he will ever fit in there again.
And a cryptic ending keeps you wondering long after "The Hunt" is over.
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp, Susse Wold
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, written by Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:55
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language
Photo/Video credit: Magnolia Pictures