Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt opens on a familiar scene of middle-aged male bonding. Several fellas are out in the woods getting drunk and horsing around, daring one another to jump in a lake, even though its November and already chilly. One of the guys eventually strips down to nothing and takes the plunge, and the others respond with congratulatory hooting and hollering. Another of the men, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), helps to fish his friend out of the water, and the men eventually begin their journey back to proper society, singing and jesting along the way.
These tense, evocative sequences tell us that the film is going to be concerned with hunts that are figurative as well as literal. The small Danish town the men inhabit is clearly a hunting community that values the taste of recently felled game, but we're immediately allowed to understand that these are the kind of men who subconsciously invest even their smallest actions with suggestions of violence. These men aren't conditioned by self-awareness to digest and segment their emotions, and most of their actions are marked by a mixture of endearing earnestness and discombobulating aggression. Lucas, however, stands out from the crowd. His friends comfortably fit the stereotype of the loud, manly, bearded, big-bellied hunter, but Lucas projects a quiet quality of wounded delicacy; his brio often appears to be a studied effect, and the men reveal their awareness of their friend's alien quality in a realistically fleeting off-hand fashion.
The Hunt obviously isn't grappling with new subject matter, as there are plenty of films that explore the unresolved tensions that fester within the male psyche as a reaction to a variety of socially imposed pressures to embody the prototypical alpha male. We know early on that Lucas will somehow have to pay for his differences in appearance and temperament, and that a form of discord will afford this tight-knit society an opportunity to release its pent-up toxicity. But Vinterberg trumps our expectations with his breathless, ruthlessly precise live-wire staging. The Hunt is a terrifyingly convincing study of how easily a man's contract with society can be revoked.
The film is also an exceedingly black comedy that parodies proper society's eager, self-righteous naïveté on the subject of its children. Lucas's life is ruined by a short chain of events that he exacerbates with an act of kindness and decency. A little girl, Klara (a chilling Annika Wedderkopp), disturbed by her parents' fighting and emboldened by a fleeting glimpse of pornography her older brother shows her, concocts a story of how Lucas sexually abused her as a reprisal for his refusal of her own confused, inappropriate gestures toward him. Because she's a little girl, and thus infallible in the gullible adults' eyes, it never occurs to anyone to consider her claim's immediately apparent incongruities.
Vinterberg admittedly takes a number of narrative shortcuts in the service of his parable: There appears to be no law in this town, and Lucas becomes a pariah with a speediness that challenged even this cynic's ability to suspend his disbelief. But the film operates in accordance with an unflagging nightmare logic that Vinterberg upholds with a masterly control that's rendered all the more human by his characteristically brilliant leading man. Mikkelsen never lets us forget the emotional and physical toll of Lucas's systematic ostracization: He hauntingly affirms the "human" in dehumanization.