The Hunt” is the highest profile film from Thomas Vinterberg since his Dogme 1995 film, the stunning “The Celebration.” Since then, he’s worked with Dogme collaborator Lars von Trier on films that barely screened in the States, including “It’s All About Love” and “Dear Wendy.” But “The Hunt” is a tense and suspenseful tale that matches “The Celebration” for its dour view of humanity, yet unlike Mr. Trier, the film is laced with occasional humor and flashes of hope. (Yes, “the von” likes to call some of his most depressing films “comedies,” but come on now).

I suspect the 2012 film— which won its star an award at Cannes— is only finally getting its American release due to the rising star of Mads Mikkelsen, whose dour and vulnerable visage held together “A Royal Affair” and graces the new “Hannibal” series, of which he is the star.

Magnolia Pictures photos
Magnolia Pictures photos
And thank goodness, because this is a fine film of hysteria. Mr. Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a lonely man who lives in a large farmhouse in a rural Danish town. He’s estranged from his wife and trying to get better custody of his teenage son, Marcus. In the meantime, he works at a local kindergarten and takes occasional care of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). Klara’s overactive imagination gets her into trouble often— she’s prone to wandering off— but after Klara says something in passing to her school principal, she gets Lucas in trouble.

Soon Lucas is accused of molestation, a charge that Mr. Vinterberg shows is completely unfounded. Klara’s “confession” is a masterful scene of adults filling in the blanks with their worst nightmares, skirting logic to indulge in assumptions. When Klara tries to recant, the adults read this as a defense against trauma.

Lucas loses his job and his friends, who now treat him as a pariah. Even his new girlfriend wonders if he’s guilty. The supermarket won’t let him shop there. His only allies are his son, Marcus and Marcus’ godfather.

“The Hunt” is neither a mystery nor a procedural. Lucas gets arrested and released as there’s very little evidence. But as Mr. Vinterberg shows, the locals don’t care about evidence. Once Lucas is stained by the accusations, that’s all that people need. He’s guilty as hell in their eyes, an abomination. Lucas, low on self-esteem already, wears a lot of it like a martyr.

In the hands of Lars von Trier, Lucas would probably have wound up burned at the stake after a long, degrading fall. But Mr. Vinterberg has a bit more faith in humanity— just a bit— and “The Hunt” wraps up in a surprising fashion, then jumps ahead a year for its epilogue, which has a sting in its tail.

Mr. Mikkelsen is a fascinating actor to watch. He does a lot with a little in a story that could have been ripe for melodrama. His slow breakdown in church during Christmas Mass is achieved through his eyes and mouth until Lucas finally speaks. Like many of the scenes in “The Hunt,” it’s as tense as any mainstream thriller this season.

‘The Hunt’
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Annika Wedderkopp
Rating: Rated R for sexual content including a graphic image, violence and language
Length: 115 minutes
Playing at: Plaza de Oro

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