The best thing about a small time is that everyone knows you. The worst thing about a small town is that everyone knows you. Either way, you can’t runaway from whatever label you’re given.  In 2012 Danish drama “The Hunt” (rated R)  one man finds out how the comfort a a close-knit community can lead to discomfort.

Filmed in muted colors with beautiful country scenery and inviting homes, director Thomas Vinterberg gives us the dream of small town life for the insider. Even an outsider can come in, but not someone who becomes an outcast. There’s no place to hide in this homey town when a misunderstanding brings one’s character into question. Then the nice homes, the pastoral scenes and chumminess become an ironic contrast to the ugliness of group think gone bad.

Lucas, played with stolid stoicism and explosive erotic energy by Mads Mikkelsen, is a divorcee struggling in life, mostly alone. Denmark is different from America. That’s aptly illustrated when we see a group of men, one naked and charming into the cold water of a local pond. Lucas isn’t naked, but he’s one of the men. If full frontal male nudity offends you, you might want to skip with movie, but that would be a shame. The nudity here is tasteful and not sexualized.

This is an old boys club and the men are just being good humored in their dare-doing.

Lucas is a somber man, even when drinking with his best male friends. Besides is divorce, he was a secondary school teacher, but his school has closed down. Now he works at a kindergarten. He’s attracted to a woman from outside the community who works there, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport). Lucas among his friends is quiet and repressed, but suddenly finds an outlet with Nadja (steamy sex scene).

Because of his work at the kindergarten, Lucas also has the attention of Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), a student there who is the daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). Lucas walks her home; Klara is somewhat off mentally. Theo and his wife are going through a rough patch and Klara’s older brother shows her a pornographic photo of a man’s erect penis, something that we don’t see.

Klara acts on her crush for Lucas, but when Lucas gently rejects him, her disappointment manifests itself in a confused statement that mixes her affection for Lucas and what her brother said earlier. Further pressure and leading questions makes matters worse. Lucas finds himself, without a job and without friends and yet unable to leave his home because of his son who is also being affected by the rumor. Although eventually cleared, Lucas lives under the weight of continued suspicions and violent vigilante actions.

“The Hunt” (Jagten) was shown at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mikkelsen won Best Actor. The tone of this movie is grime. Much of the emotional turmoil of Lucas is internalized and Mikkelsen subtly expresses the depression and anger of a man fighting to regain a place in society. You might know Mikkelson for the intellectually evil Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the new TV series “Hannibal,” but he’s was also in the recent “A Royal Affair” as well as the 2008 World War II historical drama “Flame & Citron” (Flammen & Citronen).  Director Thomas Vinterberg illustrates how easily a cozy small town can transform into a stifling prison and once a rumor is spread how it continues to live on despite the truth.

Vinterberg who also co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm doesn’t tie things up in a neat package. This is a somber reminder of how easy it is to ruin a life, not through lies, but by mishandled investigations and how easily individuals join in the mass hysteria. A village can be a family, but it can also be a sadly dysfunctional one as well.

Californians might recall the McMartin preschool trial case in the 1980s. Virginia McMartin, her daughter Peggy McMartin Buckey and Buckey’s son Ray Buckey were all charged with child abuse along with three teachers. However, the accusations became more hysterical, including claims that one of the teacher flew in the air and that Chuck Norris was one of the abusers. Although the first accusation was made in 1983, the trials didn’t begin until 1987 and the last trial ended in 1990.

In a similar case in Maplewood, New Jersey, Margaret Kelly Michaels of the Wee Care Nursery School was investigated in 1985 and went to trial in 1988. She would spend only five years of her 47 year sentence in prison after she was successful in her appeal.

In Boston, three family members who ran the Fells Acre daycare center in Malden, MA were convicted (Gerald Amirault, his mother Violet and sister Cheryl Amirault LeFavre. Gerald was convicted in 1986.

The moral panic and day care sex abuse hysteria has also been cited in Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis case in New Zealand. Ellis, however, was convicted in 1992 and served time in prison (released on parole in 2000) although he continues to maintain his innocence.

Virginia McMartin died in 1995 at a Torrance area hospital. She was 88. She used up all her savings and her preschool defending herself against the child abuse accusations. She and two teachers won $1 in court in their slander lawsuit against a parent of one of their former charges. Ray Buckey went to law school and his sister, Peggy Ann Buckey returned to teaching. Peggy McMartin Buckey died in 2000 at 74.

“The Hunt” is well worth watching, particularly if you stop to consider how Los Angeles County played host to the most expensive trial of its time during a wave of daycare sex abuse hysteria. We might not have burned the victims of this modern day witch hunt, but they were certainly punished by mob hysteria, hysteria not unlike the one following the recent killing of a Rottweiler by a police man. “The Hunt is currently playing at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7. In Danish and English with English subtitles.

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