Lars von Trier would probably be the first to tell you that beneath the well-mannered, cultured façade of Denmark, or anywhere for that matter, lurks the barbarity of the Dark Ages. It can be seen in the sodden, tribal bonding rites of a bunch of hunting buddies in “The Hunt,” fellow Dane and Dogme 95 cofounder Thomas Vinterberg’s harrowing but flawed study of an innocent man accused of pedophilia. The bearded, drunken men of a hunting party, bellowing and skinny-dipping, enact a bibulous macho ritual. It’s a scene that could have happened 1,000 years ago, or might be an outtake from “Grown Ups 2.”
As with his 1998 Dogme 95 melodrama, “The Celebration,” Vinterberg focuses his new film on the pathology that underlies respectability. In the earlier effort his subject was a single clan, the events taking place at one location over a compressed period of time, the style adhering to the no-frills “vow of chastity” of the Dogme manifesto. But here he takes on an entire community; and with the broader context, Vinterberg has grown more schematic, and the story becomes less plausible.
As an example of how “The Hunt” challenges a willing disbelief, it is the kind of movie that would have ended after 30 minutes if the main character had the good sense to call a lawyer. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a damaged soul recovering from a broken marriage, works as a teacher at a small-town nursery school, earning the respect and affection of his co-workers and the love of the kids he teaches. But one of the children, lonely Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who is also the daughter of Lucas’s best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), loves him a bit too much. She gives him a card expressing her feelings; and Lucas, sensing an unhealthy infatuation, rebuffs her gently.
Hell hath no fury like a little girl scorned, at least in this scenario, which can edge uncomfortably close to misogyny. Inspired by a pornographic image her loutish teenage brother allows her to see, Klara tells a vague lie, which expands into a monstrous accusation. All too quickly Lucas’s formerly amicable neighbors ostracize and threaten him. A few hardy souls, including his son, stick with Lucas, but the situation escalates into a milder form of the scapegoating recently depicted, ad absurdum, in “The Purge.”
Scapegoats usually take on the sins of the society that persecutes them, and there is plenty rotten in this state of Denmark, beginning with Theo’s dysfunctional family. But the self-righteous women seem the worst, manipulating their feckless menfolk into a mob. And Lucas’s woes work well for his estranged wife’s efforts to void his custody rights to his son.
Again, you’d think this madness could have been stopped with a few timely phone calls. Vinterberg’s giddiness-inducing post-Dogme style, intended no doubt to enhance the realism, here instead calls attention to the film’s contrivances. But the performances add credibility. Mikkelsen, best known to US audiences as the eye-bleeding villain in “Casino Royale” (2006) and as the title cannibal in the NBC series “Hannibal,” brings a long-suffering but vaguely reptilian intensity to Lucas. And Wedderkopp as the girl who cries wolf possesses the eerie aura of a changeling; she’s an uncanny-looking child, and would be well cast as one of the Diane Arbus-like twins if anyone makes “The Shining II.”