Director Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 sophomore feature, The Celebration (or Festen; I'm never clear on which is the preferred U.S. title), is one of the agreed-upon masterpiece of 1990s cinema. That being said, I don't personally have much use for it at all, owing in part to it being the flagship of the Dogme 95 movement, for which I also don't have much use at all. So the awestruck praise that swirled around his latest, the apparent return-to-form The Hunt, at its 2012 Cannes premiere inspired, I will confess, very little in the way of confidence. Also, disliking The Celebration is one of those things that makes you a cinephile pariah, so I've put it up here first just to make sure that nobody reads this and only finds out at the end that I'm a huge asshole whose opinions aren't worth noticing.

That all being said: The Hunt works better than The Celebration, at any rate. I'm not absolutely certain how much it works, and my suspicion is that without the sobering performance of Mads Mikkelsen in the central role, it wouldn't end up working at all.

The story, as co-written by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, is not unlike Arthur Miller's The Crucible, updated to modern Denmark: it is a story about how one person's off-the-cuff lie can whip up a community's paranoia and bigotry to destroy one person's life solely on the basis of rumor and scandal. In this case, Lucas (Mikkelsen), is a kindergarten teacher of the absolute best sort imaginable: he treats his students with dignity and respect, talking to them at a level that they can fully comprehend and appreciate, making sure they are cared for in all respects. This has made him a beloved fixture among the adults in the country village where he lives, and an icon to the children, especially a little girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp). To express her passionate crush on the teacher, she has made him a small present, which he very gently and kindly and in the most respectful way possible declines; this pisses her off, and - armed with the knowledge of a porno she saw her brother watching - she mentions oh-so-casually to a member of the school staff, Grethe (Susse Wold) that Lucas was in the habit of exposing his erect penis to her.

We have, at this point, hit the first point where I can't quite shake the feeling that the film is having me on; not that I spend too much time around five- or six-year-olds, but Klara seems to be acting with a degree of calculated, malicious intent that I really can't wrap my head around (the story most directly comparable to this that I am aware of, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, situates its resentful student at a much more reasonable 12 or 13). But let's not get bogged down by plot logic. Vinterberg and Lindholm didn't, after all. Suffice it to say that Klara's father, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), who is also Lucas's best friend, doesn't stop to wait for evidence, any more than the blabbermouth Gerthe does, and in very little time at all, the whole town is convinced that Lucas is a habitual child-rapist. The ostracism and ice-cold hatred he receives is bad enough, in no small part because of its Kafkaesque arbitrariness; but things get really bad when Lucas's teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrรธm) starts to be caught up in the witch hunt against his father, and then the physical intimidation starts to kick in, and Lucas finds himself in the bottommost pit of a nightmare, utterly confused about how he got there and horribly aware that he has no way out.

Mikkelsen is great. Let's just clarify that, and keep on doing it. When The Hunt triumphs, it is absolutely due to the way that actor captures the panicked fear of being caught in a wrong man thriller, as well as anybody ever did in the most severe of Hitchcock films. The title already suggests, and the opening scenes state it outright, that there's symbolism at play between the deer hunting that makes up one of the only forms of entertainment in this community, and the way Lucas is flushed out and abused by his former friends. And this, too, Mikkelsen captures gorgeously: the flitting, nervous energy of a prey animal is in the subtext of every part of his coiled, wiry physical performance.

The parts of the film that aren't Mikkelsen, though, are... problematic? Ineffective? Grimly one-note and miserabilist? Oh, so one-note and miserabilist. It's not fair to compare anything to The Crucible, one of the most iconic of all midcentury plays, but The Hunt courts those comparisons so readily, and it doesn't come out good from it. Vinterberg's approach to the story is unusually uniform and inflexible, and it doesn't take very long after the big pedophilia scare kicks in (about a third of the way into the movie) for it to become clear that The Hunt is a film with one single idea, that it rides into the ground and deep into the soft earth below the surface. Much like The Celebration, it isn't so much cynical as nihilistic, so involved in the worst of human behavior that it feels as much like a celebration of suffering as an exploration of it. It lacks any nuance in any character besides, arguably, Lucas's doubting girlfriend Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport) - even Lucas himself possesses no subtleties but those that Mikkelsen provides to him, for he is otherwise a cardboard martyr propped up for our sympathetic veneration, but not remotely our appreciation of human behavior, except in its most extreme and repetitive form. It's too emotionally vicious to be a slog; but it's not nearly varied enough to be much of anything else.

A few things redeem the film a little bit, enough that I feel a bit wobbly deciding between a passing and a failing grade. One of these, of course, is Mikkelsen. Another is Charlotte Bruus Christensen's cinematography, which has its problems - far too much of that damnable handheld camera "realism" that European cinema has been very slowly weaning itself from in the last several years, and the filmmakers are much too reluctant to try anything that isn't a close-up - but is far more nuanced and atmospheric than strict realism would permit for (let alone the dictatorially stringent Dogme 95), attaining a sickly kind of intimacy that allows us to fully experience Lucas's miseries along with him. And the first thirty minutes, when the film is strictly observational and interested only in how this community hums along in its resting state, is genuinely engaging and solid character studying and world building. Stacked up next to things like the unremitting, manufactured bleakness of the plot, the ludicrous epilogue, and the shallow characterisations, that's not much, but it's something.

Anyway, there's not doubt that the film gets a big emotional reaction. It might not be fair, it might not be truthful, and it might not have any discernible point, but it's there. So that's something too.