Mads Mikkelsen in "The Hunt"
Magnolia Mads Mikkelsen in "The Hunt"

Certain charges can never be lived down, but will return to haunt you again and again. This is a central theme of Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliantly disturbing “The Hunt,” which has been nominated for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar. It centers on Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongly accused of child molestation. The subject matter also haunts Vinterberg’s body of work, which came to international prominence with 1998’s “The Celebration,” a portrait of a family reunion gone to hell when memories of pedophilia rise to the surface.

Lucas (Mikkelsen) is a fortysomething in the wake of an acrimonious divorce and the loss of his job as a school teacher. To make ends meet, he works at a local kindergarten, a temporary job he obviously enjoys. He has a natural way with young children, and a saintly patience for five-year-olds using him as a jungle gym, calling on him to stand by as they take their sweet time in the bathroom, and other such demands. He forms a particular friendship with Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of the kindergarten’s students and the cherubic daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen).

Perhaps because Klara is neglected at home when her parents fight, or perhaps because little kids develop proto-sexual fixations on older humans they idolize, she has an unruly if innocent crush on Lucas. This little girl’s crush accidentally spirals into something catastrophic.

It’s easy enough for adults to misspeak. Even more so for children, who are confused by their feelings, restricted by a language they haven’t yet mastered, and acutely concerned with telling adults what they think they want to hear. Klara, in not so many words, accuses Lucas of pedophilia. Making this dire -- and false -- accusation all the more damaging is the unlikelihood of a child making up such a story.

The Hunt

What happens next is a nightmare of mishandled events, expertly staged and paced by Vinterberg and co-screenwriter Tobias Lindholm (who directed the 2012 Danish film, “A Hijacking”). I can’t remember the last time I was in a screening where there was such palpable, and audible, anger in the audience -- not at the film, but at the sequence of damning screw-ups placed so believably into the narrative. That the kindergarten’s well-meaning principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), goes to her unqualified friend, and then the school’s parents and staff, before approaching the police to further look into the sensitive matter, is just one example from the film that sent a wave of horrified noises through the theater. That horror is effective filmmaking.

As the man blindsided by such a pernicious accusation, Lucas must make a journey from passivity to action in order to save his life. This transition is handled brilliantly by Mikkelsen, who won the Best Actor award for his performance at last year’s Cannes. A tall, well-built Dane with almost otherworldly fine bone structure, Mikkelsen is a physical contradiction. He’s strong and conventionally masculine (as seen particularly in Nicolas Winding Refn’s brutal, beautiful Viking tale “Valhalla Rising”) but also has a delicacy to him.

These dual qualities were no doubt honed during his years of professional dance training. They translate to his performance in “The Hunt,” where he at once plays a loner crippled by his past, but also the Lone Wolf forced to protect himself from the townsmen’s pack -- even if that means headbutting his angelic nosebridge and cheek bones into a grocer who won’t let a perceived pervert shop at the local food mart.

While this transition is central to “The Hunt,” it also works in tandem with another shift in the film. As Lucas becomes isolated from his friends, particularly the men with whom he gathers annually for woodland deer hunting, his makeshift family unit becomes more solid. One friend, Bruun (Lars Ranthe), resiliently defends him. Lucas’ teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), who has been living with his mother since the divorce, comes back into his life with a loyal passion. One of the surprisingly moving detours in the film follows Marcus on his own personal quest to right the shattering wrongs that have been piled upon his father.

The elephant in the room is that such wrongs -- false accusations of pedophilia -- have an indelible effect. Once out there, they’re not going away. “The Hunt” doesn’t shy away from this bleak truth, but rather presents a plausible, devastating reality. After the fallout, Lucas has his few true friends. Everyone else is just a hunter, with rifle aimed, in the woods.

Our TOH! video interview with Mads Mikkelsen is here.