Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), left, is a teacher accused of a crime by the daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), in “The Hunt.” (Per Arnesen)

Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen delivers an astonishingly restrained and expressive central performance in “The Hunt,” an engrossing psycho-social drama by Thomas Vinterberg. With superbly calibrated emotion, action and narrative tension, the two create an atmosphere that’s both banal and nightmarish, as one man’s unremarkable life spirals into a Kafkaesque labyrinth of misunderstanding and suspicion.

Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher who is coping with a recent divorce, a custody battle over his young son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), and his own tentative steps back into the dating pool when he’s unexpectedly called into the principal’s office. What unfolds will be painfully unsurprising to anyone familiar with the stories that dominated news reports 20 years ago; what makes “The Hunt” more than a ripped-from-the-headlines tabloid story is Vinterberg’s attention to detail in meticulously setting up the events that so swiftly spin out of control. While the grievous tick-tock grinds inexorably on, Mikkelsen breathes impressive life and sympathy into Lucas, even behind the shield of eyeglasses and quiet Scandinavian reserve.

In fact, Mikkelsen’s protagonist in “The Hunt” in many ways recalls his character in last year’s historical drama “A Royal Affair,” in which he played a doctor trying to bring Enlightenment-era notions of rationality and humanism to 18th-century Denmark. Lucas, too, is on the side of logic and evidence in the midst of the fevered innuendo that grips even his closest friends. As much as “The Hunt” is an unsettlingly convincing portrait of one man’s struggle against a single falsehood, it’s also a study in collective hysteria, superstition and unconditional belief — in this case, in the shibboleths that children are always to be believed and that predators are easily recognized.

Because “The Hunt” is predicated on such a well-known hot button issue, it sometimes feels dated, its masterful storytelling and performances serving a cautionary lesson that — one hopes — viewers won’t need to re-learn. (In press notes for the film, Vinterberg noted that the roots of “The Hunt” lie in an encounter he had with a psychologist in 1999.) And, for all the superb control Vinterberg deploys in stringing Lucas’s tale along, he stumbles at the ending, which feels overhyped and unearned.

Still, “The Hunt” makes up for those quibbles by presenting audiences with a textbook example of classical cinema, wherein all the elements — crisp photography, astute editing, atmospheric sound and visual design and magnificent performances — come together in one simple but utterly riveting unified whole.

Mikkelsen seems to be everywhere these days — most notably playing the title character in the television series “Hannibal” — but Vinterberg’s last notable film was 1998’s “The Celebration.” With “The Hunt,” he makes a return that bodes exceedingly well for things to come.


R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains sexual content, including a graphic image, violence and profanity. In Danish with English subtitles. 111 minutes.