To American audiences, the name “Mads Mikkelsen” might only ring a bell if you first introduce him as “that Bond villain with the bleeding eye” from 2006’s Casino Royale. But Mikkelsen is arguably the biggest name in Danish cinema, and his international credibility continues to rise with The Hunt, which earned him the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Mikkelsen’s colossal, handsome, alarmingly blank face dominates The Hunt, in which he plays Lucas, a divorced kindergarten teacher who is accused by a pupil – who is also his best friend’s daughter – of sexual abuse.

Lucas’ reputation in the community decays within hours from all-around good guy to the most-hated man in town. And despite what is presented about Lucas, and how much you want him to fight to have his name cleared, Mikkelsen’s performance plants some frustrating seeds of doubt.

At times, Lucas seems like a computer-generated creation, with Mikkelsen evoking a touch of the “uncanny valley,” which made him a great, disquieting Bond villain. Why isn’t Lucas going gung-ho to quickly shut down this virtually life-ending scandal? Where is Lucas concealing the boiling rage of injustice? Why are we rooting for a man whose face is impossible to read? It’s these questions that make The Hunt so engrossing, and it’s Mikkelson’s spellbinding choices in the role of Lucas that makes the movie a success.

But let’s make something clear: The Hunt is a peculiar movie. Maybe it’s just the Danishness of it all: the epic drinking-with-the-guys sequence (watch the trailer), the hilariously inaccurate portrayal of a male kindergarten teacher (they are essentially human jungle gyms who encourage their own bodily harm.) But Hunt’s occasional, unintentional silliness is outshined by its frequent, unrelenting intensity. And most impressive, and most emotionally evocative, is how it highlights the miracle of loyalty.

Director Thomas Vinterberg seems like a guy who can empathize with a pariah. His 1998 debut The Celebration, which also deals with child sexual abuse, launched him to the top of international art cinema. But his ambitiously disastrous followup, 2003’s It’s All About Love – starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Sean Penn – set off a decade-long critical and creative slump that he claims included being called an “idiot” by Nordic cinema god Ingmar Bergman.

The Hunt has given Vinterberg another chance at being taken seriously, which fits beautifully with the film’s redemptive spirit. And he certainly owes a debt to Mads Mikkelsen’s unusual talents. Who will step into Mads’ shoes when a clumsy, American remake comes along? Who cares.

~Steve Swanson


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