Film: Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

It takes moxie to turn Mads Mikkelsen into Mr. Goody Two Shoes.

Mads who, you ask? He’s that creepy-looking Danish dude best known for hitting Daniel Craig in the testicles – repeatedly – in Casino Royale. In the States, he’s a character actor, but in Europe, the droopy-eyed actor has achieved leading-man status, most recently as the ill-fated doctor carrying on a royal affair in the Oscar-nominated costume drama A Royal Affair.

TV audiences stateside appear to have warmed up to his take on Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s Hannibal, which premiered earlier this year to decent ratings and encouraging word of mouth. Overseas, though, Mikkelsen garnered some of the best reviews of his career – and Best Actor honors at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – for his performance as a small-town teacher accused of a very naughty misdeed in fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg’s pressure-cooker character study The Hunt.

So what did Lucas allegedly do? Psst, come closer so nobody else can hear about this unspeakable act. Promise me you won’t tell another soul. Ready? Lucas, well … he showed his weewee. He showed his peepee … to his kindergarten student! And she told his boss, in graphic detail, how it, um, moved. Upwards.

Only none of it’s true. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with The Hunt, which opens Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Bill Cosford Cinema. Lucas, a divorced dad who lost his job teaching older student at a school that closed down, is beyond reproach. A paragon of integrity … and a dullard. There he is in the movie’s opening scene, coming to the rescue of one of his drinking buddies after he jumps into freezing waters and gets a cramp. Lucas, you see, has known this group of male friends his whole life, so of course they’d, um, rise to the occasion after the allegations were made … by none other than Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the impressionable 4-year-old daughter of Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), his best friend.

First, a little context is in order. Klara, a high-maintenance, OCD princess, has relied on the sympathetic Lucas to walk her home after she wanders away from home, where Mommy and Daddy are often screaming really loudly at each other … and where she catches her older brother drooling over nude photos on his iPad with his horny pals. (This is a European film, so you get a peek-a-boo glimpse at images of erect penises.) The next day, Klara playfully falls into Lucas’ arms and plants a big, wet sloppy kiss on the lips. Taken aback, the dutiful teacher later sits her down and advises her to limit such intimate displays of affection to Mommy and Daddy. Klara doesn’t take the well-intentioned chiding well. Waiting for her mother to pick her up, the spiteful tyke conflates what she saw on her brother’s iPad with her teacher’s scolding … to Grethe (Susse Wold), the school’s manager.

The middle-aged woman calls Lucas into her office, is purposefully vague about details of the allegation, and asks him to take a couple of days off. Then she blabs about it to the other teachers, including fellow employee Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), who is dating Lucas. (How dull is the mild-mannered Lucas? Even his lovemaking is boring.) Seems like Grethe can’t get those vivid images out of her head. How can such an upstanding member of his tight-knot rural community be a perv in disguise? How could he drop his drawers and reveal that pulsating, bulging – OK, that last part was my own flourish. But, I kid you now, a few scenes later, Lucas is running after Grethe behind the school property, since, you know, she’s about to ruin his life for no other reason that a kid who, by all accounts, has an overactive imagination said something that was false. And she can’t wait to get away from the perv and the monster lurking inside his pants.

Children don’t lie,” insists Grethe. “Not about things like that.” Yes they do, Grethe, and the domino effect she triggers after she chooses to call the cops on Lucas sends his life on the expected downward spiral. Longtime friends become enemies, and Lucas broods. And then he broods some more. He glowers at the supermarket manager who won’t let him shop there. He grimaces at Theo, who reluctantly kicks him out of his home when he comes over to talk things over. And in the movie’s head-smackingly silly climactic scene, he gives the members of a church congregation during a Christmas Eve service some more dirty looks before confronting Theo one more time. And what should be a gripping chronicle of besmirched reputations and small-town morals turns out to be a chore to sit through.

The Hunt is always engaging whenever Lucas is interacting with his son Marcus (Lasse Gogelstrøm), one of the handful of people who believe him. Their relationship feels lived-in, genuine, but there’s never any ambiguity about Lucas’ innocence, no hint of inner demons that might make the character more complex. Even less captivating is Vinterberg’s facile depiction of the townspeople, who live up to the gullible, small-minded stereotype with alarming predictability. The only way, from where I was sitting, that The Hunt could have worked with such broadly drawn caricatures was as satire. Just imagine, for a second, a scene in which Lucas gives Grethe a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. It would have certainly saved us all two hours of tortured finger-pointing.

Lucas is not the only tortured, prone-to-brooding leading figure making his way to local screens this weekend. Aussie patootie Hugh Jackman once again sports his mutton chops and gruff charm as Wolverine in The Wolverine, the latest X-men adventure from the Marvel movie universe opening in wide release on Friday. For my money, it’s one of the weakest. How do you turn one of Prof. Charles Xavier’s brawniest protégés into a generic action hero? If you’re director James Mangold (Walk the Line, the Russell Crowe/Christian Bale 3:10 to Yuma remake), your drop him in the middle of a lousy, Yakuza-themed telenovela replete with stiff line readings from a Japanese cast that acts considerably better when they’re performing in their native tongue, which is not very often.

Wolfie, as it turns out, rescued a Japanese official right before a U.S. bomber jet dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki at the tail end of World War II. Now dying of cancer, Master Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) wants to repay the favor … by taking the handsome mutant’s gift/curse of immortality from him. Nothing doing, replies the stoic sourpuss. He finds out the hard away that he can’t simply walk away from the proposal. It seems Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the biochemist Yashida hired to treat his terminal illness is rather insistent on getting her way, even though the reptilian dominatrix with the poisonous tongue even more successful at displaying a chronic case of Poison Ivy envy.

Mangold, working from a screenplay by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) and the estimable Scott Frank (Dead Again), spends way too much screen time developing a tentative romance between Logan (Wolfie’s real first name) and Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s granddaughter and the target of all kinds of cool-looking baddies. Wolverine takes them on, most memorably in a nifty sequence on top of a moving bullet train, but thanks to Viper’s clever machinations, the superhero doesn’t heal from his wounds like he used to. You would think a vulnerable Wolverine would make the character more interesting, but mortality – which may or may not be temporary – has the opposite effect, and that’s before The Wolverine takes a Samurai sword and commits celluloid hara-kiri during the movie’s crushingly ridiculous third act. An amusing end-credits sequence features two high-profile cameos that suggest things will improve once original X-Men and X2:X-Men United director Bryan Singer retakes the reins of the franchise in next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. That day cannot come soon enough.

About Ruben Rosario

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