A film review by Craig J. Koban August 11, 2012

THE HUNTER jjj

2012, R, 100 mins.

Martin: Willem Dafoe / Jack: Sam Neill / Lucy: Frances O’Connor / Sass: Morgana Davies / Bike: Finn Woodlock

Directed by Daniel Nettheim / Written by Alice Addison, based on the novel by Julia Leigh

Daniel Nettheim’s THE HUNTER focuses on one mercenary’s lonely, but highly driven quest to track and locate one of the most endangered animals on the planet, believed to be extinct since the mid-1900’s.  Willem Dafoe, who seems to have a face that’s born to play a world-weary, battle hardened, and meticulously obsessive-minded hunter, stars as the merc in question.  He’s got those angular and craggy features, piercing eyes, and overall icy disposition that makes him an instantly credible presence all throughout THE HUNTER. 

The prey in question is the Tasmanian Tiger, a very odd looking creature that looks like a wild canine with tiger strips that has essentially gone into extinction (the last known specimen apparently died in 1936 while in a zoo).  The last reported sighting of one was nearly forty years ago in southern Australia, where the animal had achieved near mythic stature.  Even though there have been many unconfirmed sightings and of the Tasmanian Tiger, capturing one has eluded hunters for decades, which is highly ironic, seeing as aggressive hunting and deforestation has all but lead to the animal’s annihilation.   

Dafoe plays Martin David, the aforementioned mercenary hunter that lives a life of constant solitude and has a peculiar love of opera, bathing, and weapons of all sorts.  When the film opens we see him at a Parisian hotel where he awaits his next orders from a high profile client.  While there he meets with a representative from a military biotech firm named Red Leaf.  They desperately wants Martin’s unique tracking and hunting skills to head to a remote part of Tasmania, locate the famed Tasmanian Tiger, and then collect its hair and tissue samples.  He is also ordered to destroy the rest of the beast after he has completed his mission.  Something just does not seem…right…from the get go, and Martin seems to sense it.  It appears that Red Leaf wants no one else to have any rights to the DNA of the creature, hoping to utilize its genetic material for God knows what. 

 

 

Martin does have a cover while on his mission; he poses as a university biologist on a research outing.  When he arrives in the most isolated section of the Tasmanian outback he is immediately greeted by the locales with suspicion and hostility.  A locale guide (played well by Sam Neil) sets him up with a room in the out-of-the-way home of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor) and her two children.  When he arrives at the woman’s home he finds the kids essentially fending for themselves, largely because Lucy is in a chronic comatose state from all the anti-depressants she’s been taking.  Her zoologist husband has long since gone missing in the mountains and many people in the community believe that his disappearance and potential death was no mere accident.  Maybe this has something to do with the reaction that Martin gets when he initially comes to the area.  One of the central mysteries of the film is whether the husband was killed by the elements, wild animals, or by the blue collar timber workers that feel that environmentalists coming in and preaching an anti-forestry agenda is a threat to their way of life.  Either way, Martin entering the picture posing as a biologist does not sit well with the disgruntled working class. 

Outside of the less than warm welcome Martin receives, the living quarters he is given if far from ideal: the cottage has no power, is dirty and unclean, and has no real adult figure looking after the property, largely due to Frances being committed to her bed 24/7.  This predictably leads to the children bonding with the hunter, something that he does not want, seeing as it sort of taints his edge and focus on his task at hand.  His mission grows even more complicated when it becomes alarmingly clear that he may not be the only one looking to nab the tiger.  On one mission his vehicle is trashed, on another expedition he hears gunshots from afar, and on a late trek through the fog entrenched wild he comes across a motion activated camera that snaps his picture.  Martin fully begins to grasp the complexity and inherent danger of his mission, not to mention that his employers take umbrage with him fraternizing with Frances and her children. 

The finest sections of the film are its quietest, showing Martin hiking all alone through the forests using stealth, ingenuity, and a wide array of survivalist strategies to nab his elusive prey.  The film was wisely shot on location in Tasmania, utilizing an evocatively sullen color palate by Robert Humphreys, which gives THE HUNTER a sense of stark environmental immediacy and veracity; the film becomes almost hauntingly beautiful and foreboding at the same time.  What’s kind of compelling is how the film lures you into the desolate and lonesome world of the hunter and how he operates within the larger framework of the rocky, snowy, and moss covered forests he inhabits.  This is greatly assisted by Dafoe’s superlative work, who seems to fluently suggest a man driven by gnarly compulsion, a steadfast duty to his employers, and a sense of inner conflict with his mission and his growing emotional intimacy to Frances and her children. 

I greatly appreciated how the relationship between Frances and Martin does not traverse on the journey-most-traveled approach of setting them up as obligatory lovers, not to mention that Martin’s transformation from a withdrawn and cold hearted recluse to a semi-paternal figure to Frances’ children is handled with appropriate and unforced tact.   Yet, there’s no denying the inherent predictability and obviousness of the film’s narrative trajectory with turning the stone cold hunter into a vulnerable man through his interactions with the family.  There's also perhaps far too many subplots lurking in the background that are all vying for attention and, in turn, distract from the worth of the whole.  You have the story of the shadowy Red Leaf and their business and conspiratorial imperatives to capture the tiger’s DNA; the local timber workers that who have had it with environmentalists (and newcomers like Martin) interfering with their vocation; the real motives of Neil’s murky character and how he figures in on all of this; the mystery of Frances’ husband and his apparent death; and so on and so on.   

Yet, THE HUNTER is a sumptuous and magnificently shot film with a grounded performance of soft-spoken charisma and low-key intensity by Dafoe.  I think that those that are expecting the pulse pounding, man-versus-nature intrigue and unsettling gravitas of the Liam Neeson-centric and action-packed THE GREY may be setting themselves for dissatisfaction here.  Yet, THE HUNTER is not intended as a high octane adventure film; it’s a more character driven drama and a modulated, hushed, and internalized thriller, which is kind of characteristic of its troubled hero. 

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