Review: The Hunter (2012)

Some movies are more reminiscent of short stories than novels. Like short stories, these kinds of films have a singularity of purpose, a streamlined plot, an obsessive central theme and a calculation to every moment. Although based off a novel, The Hunter is one of these films.

Directed by Daniel Nettheim, The Hunter reminded me a lot of Anton Corbijn’s The American from 2010. Like The American, The Hunter is simple, conventional in story but not in execution, and has gorgeous cinematography in an exotic locale. As well, the story may follow a traditional arc, but you won’t find the filmmakers reveling in any preordained climaxes or triggering cheap emotional payoffs. There is emotion in these films, but it is slight and it is earned. Essentially, if you were turned off by how low-key and subdued The American was, The Hunter may similarly frustrate you.

The Hunter is the story of Martin David (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary-of-sorts hired by a biotech company to head to the Tasmanian wilderness and track down and kill the last Tasmanian tiger. Although the tiger has been reportedly extinct since 1936, recent reports indicate that there may be one left, and the biotech firm wants its DNA so it can replicate its unique paralyzing toxin.

Martin arrives in Tasmania and a local contact (Sam Neill) sets him up with the family of a missing eco-activist. He passes himself off as a zoologist studying Tasmanian devils and reluctantly befriends the children, the vulgar, exuberant daughter, Sass and the introspective mute son, Bike. The children’s mother (Frances O’Connor) exists in a pill-induced stupor and so Martin reluctantly takes on some parental responsibilities with the children when he is not in the wilderness of the Tasmanian plateau hunting for the tiger.

Complications arise with the biotech company and Martin is drawn uncomfortably close to the family as they are caught up in the conflict between the anti-logging environmentalists (started by their missing father) and the locals who make their living from deforestation.

There are familiar aspects to this story. The mysterious stranger who takes the place of the absentee father and comes to question his identity; the evil foreign corporation undermining local conflict for its own ends — these plot elements are conventional in one way or another. However, within their familiarity, Nettheim and screenwriter Alice Addison never allow the film to be a vehicle for cheap emotionality or plot resolution. For example, Martin and the mother never link up romantically. If this was a Hollywood film, that would’ve been a necessity. Here, the plot is merely a framework for the filmmakers to explore theme and character.

In some aspects, the film takes on mythic proportions. It is no accident that Dafoe’s Martin and the Tasmanian tiger resemble each other: both are apex predators who are outdated, extinct. If Martin were to actually find and kill the tiger, it would mark the symbolic destruction of his own way of life as well.

The film is most alive in the hunting scenes, set on the haunting and gorgeous Tasmanian plateau. In his New York Times review Stephen Holden calls the setting prehistoric, and I can’t think of a better way to describe the rugged beauty of the landscape. This is foreboding nature, and cinematographer Robert Humphreys shoots it more similar to the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings than any typical Australian landscape we’re familiar with from movies.

The scenes on the plateau follow Martin through his daily hunting ritual — mapping the area and making traps from twigs and the various body parts of smaller animals he has killed for samples. Although nothing is happening onscreen plot-wise, these scenes are fascinating.

Dafoe’s performance centres the film and he makes Martin a fascinating individual. Details about Martin are scant. We get nothing of his past, little of the details of his work before this hunting excursion, and aren’t even sure Martin is his real name. We know he likes opera, is meticulously clean and organized, and is a handy repairman. All the details of Martin’s life are external; it is left to Dafoe to provide the internal aspects, and he makes the character far more than a series of habits. There’s also an innate gentleness to Dafoe that plays well with this character.

The Hunter’s biggest misstep is in the story department. While the surprising emotion of the film’s climax is earned, the complications that happen along the way are forced, arising out of their necessity to this sort of story and not because they fit naturally within the story’s framework. The biotech company’s motivations are muddled, to say the least, and their mode of operating seems unnecessarily sinister, even when it goes against the cold logic that such actions are trying to imply.

Still, there is something immensely satisfying to a film this small, this confident, and this beautiful. The Hunter is worth watching for the cinematography alone. The performances and its thematic explorations are added bonuses.

7 out of 10

The Hunter (2012)

Directed by Daniel Nettheim; written by Alice Addison based off the novel by Julia Leigh and an original adaptation by Wain Fimeri and Daniel Hettheim; starring Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor, Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock, and Sam Neill.

The Hunter is currently playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon.