The Hunter is a film by Daniel Nettheim, based on the book of the same name by Julia Leigh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Martin David, a hired hand for a research company looking to obtain biological data from the Tasmanian tiger; a species thought long extinct. Martin travels to Tasmania in order to hunt the rare beast and bring back the bounty. He is a quiet man, content in his own company, never happier than when he is left undisturbed and able to listen to some opera on his iPod. Arriving in a small, fraught community, Martin finds himself having to deal with people, some of whom want rid of him and some of whom – more unexpectedly – come to value his presence.
The community is fraught because their main source of income – lumber – is being threatened by environmental concerns. Martin unfortunately (and somewhat inaccurately) becomes the poster-boy for their frustrations. This kicks the film into very familiar territory early on, as we see another version of the tried and true “you’re not welcome here, stranger” bar scene, which could have been lifted from any number of horror movies or westerns.
Martin, whose back story is left particularly murky, is reluctant to stay with the family that has been arranged to host him – their facilities are a contradiction-in-terms to which Martin turns up his nose, and there appears to be quite a bit of family unrest; the mother (Frances O’Connor) grieving the loss of her husband, the father of her two children. Yet when no other vacancies present themselves, Martin reluctantly joins the family in their rural home, and slowly his icy temperament is thawed as the children welcome a new authority figure into their lives.
It is this story which the film concerns itself with primarily, and anyone expecting a suspense-thriller in the wilderness as hinted at by the trailer, may do well to alter their preconceptions. Martin does venture to the wilderness to track the Tasmanian tiger… but he’s always home again by teatime. No, The Hunter is a kitchen-sink drama first and foremost.
To his credit, Dafoe holds the film in fine form. He’s always been a great unsung actor, and not often enough the leading man. Here he looks suitably rugged. A version of The Road’s unnamed father beamed in from a parallel universe. He makes Martin a believable human being, thoughtful, kind-hearted and pragmatic. Yet clearly cautious when it comes to making intimate connections. The two children (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock) slowly break down those walls, making the completion of his mission harder to achieve. His perceived responsibilities to the family now out-weighing his mercenary obligations, and the Tasmanian tiger coming to represent a part of Martin that is becoming extinct.
Nettheim’s film is well-made. It is not particularly showy. There is no grand-standing here. When we do venture into the Tasmanian wilderness, the scenery looks awesome, the quietude palpable. Here nature does Nettheim’s work for him. A sense of desolation and stillness is economically evoked. It’s an environment that suits Martin well. Likewise, as mentioned above, the cast work together to draw you in to their day-to-day.
And yet… it’s all rather bland. Doggedly low-key. There’s simply no momentum here whatsoever. As competent as every element is, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen some-other-version-of a dozen times before. We know the beats by heart. And, if anything, this plodding sense of ticking through the requisite number of minutes moving from point A to point B robs the film of some of the simple pleasures it tries to invoke. When the thriller aspect does return, it feels half-hearted, and the resolution simply is, provoking neither contentment in the viewer nor a sense of being short-changed, despite a particularly mean-spirited plot development.
At one point Martin is seen engulfed by mist, and one wonders if he will be lost completely. The same can be said of The Hunter as a whole. It leaves no tangible trace of itself behind. If it didn’t exist… no one would miss it. I’m not an impatient viewer, generally. I enjoy subtleties in cinema. But there isn’t even a sense that Nettheim himself cares a great deal about this story. Which is a shame, because there is nothing inherently wrong with any aspect of the production. Dafoe is great. But as a whole, The Hunter lacks the necessary vitality to fully recommend. This has been one of the hardest reviews to write simply because what do you say about a film like this? Unlike the Tasmanian tiger, you won’t regret seeing it… you just won’t care that you did.