A professional hunter, Willem Dafoe’s Martin David, is hired by a mysterious bio-tech corporation to track down the elusive, possibly extinct Tasmanian Tiger, and to bring back physical evidence of the animal for their shady and never disclosed genetic experiments. He moves out to the rugged and still partially uncharted landscape of Tasmania, to a mountainous region in which there have been sightings of the now-fabled creature, the last of which supposedly died in a zoo in 1932, and makes his base in the house of a local family who live right at the edge of the wilderness. Dispensing with the local guide, Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), who has been assigned to help him, he begins to make a series of expeditions into the high country, camping out for days at a time, setting traps and snares and living off the land. He has been told that he has, at best, around two months before other hunters will set off on the same quest … and that the company don’t want to come second.
But, as single-minded and obsessive as he is about hunting down the Tasmanian Tiger, David’s greatest discoveries are made back at the house with the young family. With their mother, Lucy (Frances O’ Connor) self-medicating and comatose during his initial arrival, and with their father, Jerro, having gone missing in the hills some time ago, David’s relationship is forged with the two children. Hailing from an eco-warrior mentality, the kids, Morgana Davies’ Sass, the eldest, and Finn Woodlock’s Bike, who is now mute, are both free spirits. The large cabin is rundown and in disrepair – much like the family at first appears to be - the generator won’t work, sludge comes out of the taps, there are speakers wired-up in the surrounding trees and the kids pretty much run wild around the place. David, a confirmed loner who is far more at ease in the woods than in the company of other human beings, only reluctantly begins to warm to them, but he is a practical and resourceful man, and he endeavours to patch things up about the place, starting with that damn generator. He manages to wean Lucy off her drugs and she makes a return to her compassionate, hippy way of life, gradually building an infatuation for the man-on-a-mission in her midst who, in turn, discovers emotions that he either didn’t know he had, or had believed had been buried too deep within himself to ever resurface.
But each time he returns from the hills, he comes back empty-handed. Yet, there is certainly evidence that he is not up there all by his lonesome. His traps are sabotaged and he has the impression that somebody is watching him.
If there is tension up in the highlands, there is more strife down in the neighbourhood. The loggers are in conflict with the tree-huggers, and they also believe that David is just another “greenie” sent to foul up their ailing careers and they opt to give him a hard time whenever their paths cross. Mindy is also a strange character, someone who seems to be operating towards his own hidden agenda. Clutching, watchful and suspicious, we really aren’t sure whether or not we can trust this guy. So there is plenty of that classic stranger in a strange land attitude to the situation that David finds himself in.
And all the while the Tasmanian Tiger prowls about just out of reach.
The movie comes from the men behind the hard-hitting Aussie drama, Animal Kingdom, which starred the great and still underrated Joel Edgerton (The Warrior, The Thing prequel) and Guy Pearce. It is based on the novel of the same name from Julia Leigh and even if it deals with rugged hunters and seemingly mythical creatures, this is no Ghost and the Darkness or Jaws, and as obsessed as David becomes, he is no landlubbing Quint or Captain Ahab. And while symbolism runs rife throughout the curiously sedate tale, the only monsters, or rather the only real predators on offer are of the human variety. Which, inevitably, makes them more cold-blooded and ruthless.
Existing in the same semi-existential neck of the woods as Joe Carnahan’s exquisite The Grey, The Hunter is deliberately opaque and slow, full of meandering longeurs and periods of wordless introspection. But while Carnahan’s wolf-pack thriller is a treatise on the grim acceptance of inevitable death, Daniel Netthiem’s film is all about hope and the threat that we, as a race of greedy, heartless vultures, pose to it. If The Grey can be seen as Man’s ineffectiveness in the face of raw, unflinching nature, then The Hunter is precisely the opposite – essaying the direct consequences of his interference within that delicate balance of the ecology. The story is built up out of mystery and is in no hurry to establish the impact of any revelations that David makes, only gradually altering his main trajectory from someone who is single-minded and detached from humanity to something akin to a reluctant champion in need of companionship. His original values are not entirely eroded during this transition, but they are allowed to come to the surface, sniff a new scent and to evolve. And, thus, his feelings for the family and for Lucy especially, though always uncomfortable for him, are touchingly evoked by Dafoe, whose bond with the silent Bike is the most engagingly developed of them all. Bike keeps drawing pictures of the striped Tasmanian Tiger, and gradually, with David’s gentle insistence, reveals more of the location in which it might be found. The lad sees something of his lost father in the newcomer and is able to ignore his potentially unsavoury methods and his ultimate objective by simply trusting his instincts toward David and the belief that he harbours a more caring, nurturing side.
The effect of the father’s disappearance is keenly felt. We just see a picture of him, although the guy is mentioned frequently enough by the family and by the townsfolk to become one of those great unseen characters who loom over the proceedings, almost pulling a set of invisible strings. Some revere him as visionary, whilst others regard him as a maverick or a radical. As his expeditions gather steam, David learns more about the man and discovers some curious and possibly dangerous similarities that they both share. His arrival also seems to rekindle Lucy’s love of life. An academic, herself, she is New Age type who welcomes the locals around for a little slice of Tasmanian Woodstock, giving life to one of her lost husband’s unfulfilled dreams. “He had so many ideas,” she says wistfully of the man who clearly inspired her, but it is hard not to see that she has fallen for David in a similar way. Both men are passionate about the wild though perhaps see it from different perspectives. Lucy, in a last-ditch and possibly misguided search for harmony, could be viewing David as a sort of reincarnation of Jerro, albeit one that she may have to mould in his image.
And without his past ever really getting chronicled, David surely has things to atone for. We’ve seen this relationship - the stranger becoming a surrogate husband or father - in a hundred other movies, of course, from Cameron Mitchell in Mario Bava’s Viking opus Knives of the Avenger to John Wayne in Hondo to Richard Gere John Amiel’s Sommersby, and even Michael Ritchie’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s violent pirate saga The Island had a bizarre husband-replacement deal at its colourful epicentre, but Nettheim, who co-wrote the screenplay with Wain Fimeri, at least tries to give the notion something fresh to work upon by virtue of the diametrically opposed outlooks of the two, and the deeper gulf that they attempt to surmount. The fact that Lucy is such a mess to begin with is at least as awkward a stance as David’s newfound keep-it-cosy demeanour at the dinner table. But since the two can bypass such tangential differences – and it is really the kids who create this chemical reaction in them – then maybe there could be a happy ending for them both.
Aiding this no end are the two young performers, who are both sublime, and very natural. Morgana Davies makes Sass, appropriately enough given her name, forthright and questioning, but eminently likeable. Finn Woodlock has the tougher job to do. Without words he has to convey a sense of detachment and longing that seems to find salvation in the arrival of David. Woodlock does exceptionally well, although I will admit that one crux-filled moment almost stumbles with a patently rehearsed, obviously timed and slightly overdone reaction from the boy.
Dafoe has gained a lot of respect for his performance in The Hunter and it is certainly the anchor around which the film revolves. David is a sort of catalyst-cum-baton-change figure, and it is through his eyes that we see the world. The inspired thing is that he, himself, gradually comes to see the world through the eyes of others which is the clever conceit that makes his character softly alter in front of ours. Whetherprowling the woods or assessing his latest data on a laptop, Dafoe totally inhabits the character. He has a great many scenes in which he is alone and traipsing through the bush and the high marshes, and his unflinching and totally believable style, coupled with tremendous photography from Robert Humphreys, really serve to give you that fly-on-the-bark feeling of simply watching a skilled hunter go about his business. He is also realistically subdued and guarded when back amongst humanity. There are a couple of distinct occasions when you are really willing him to say and do something, such as when the local meatheads come looking for trouble, but Dafoe holds back for the most part, refusing to pander to the conventions we expect to see being trotted out. It is compelling to watch him convey so much with those deep, soulful eyes. I doubt he will never shake off the ghost of his Sgt. Elias from Platoon, and it always seems to hover around him like a spectral shroud. Watching him moving through the woods, with his rifle at the ready, naturally evokes memories of the sacrificial saviour-cum-poster-boy from Oliver Stone’s gut-punching Oscar-nabber, but Dafoe has made a career of essaying odd, against-the-grain character roles. David is no exception. Hardly heroic, and certainly questionable in his mercenary occupation, you nevertheless feel more identification with him than with anybody else despite a dearth of actually deep or meaningful dialogue or sensitive character unpeeling. We know what he is feeling and we can see the once defiantly locked doors within his psyche slowly being opened as he allows more compassion to flow inside. We may not condone his mission, but we do sympathise with David’s efforts thanks to Dafoe’s intelligent portrayal.
There is a hint of The Deer Hunter as well as Orca Killer Whale, and even Ted Danson’s Loch Ness, in the changing relationship between the hunter and the hunted. The fragile importance of the Tasmanian Tiger, although not spelled-out at all as much as it would have been in less delicate and intuitive hands, is imparted more by inference than any direct sermonising, yet we glean that David is going through a huge emotional turnaround. There is the obvious argument that the creature – which is a spindly, rather pathetic, yet still enormously noble animal – represents the demarcation-line between the collision of attitudes down in the valley and, by extension, between the ever-shrinking natural world and that of the cruel and cold realm of corporate greed. Nobody will be all that surprised at how the eventual confrontation between prey and predator plays out, but it will linger in the mind for a while afterwards. The film’s greatest image appears here, in lonely frost and snowflakes, and it is beautifully conjured.
In a really weird and ironic twist it sounds quite strange to hear Sam Neill speaking with something more akin to his native tongue. In fact, its actually sounds like he is putting it on, a bit like when you hear the vowel-mangling, mouth-mashing of David Tennant when speaking with his genuine Scottish brogue. It just sounds bogus. Neill gives a subdued and low-key performance, as does everybody else for that matter, but even in his rather limited screentime he manages to convey a clever mix of veiled emotions and a raw undercurrent of simmering subterfuge. There is always something likeable and reliable about his presence in a movie and even in his part here, which amounts to little more than a couple of guest-spots, he manages to have his character lurk in the background throughout as a nagging reminder that all is not as it seems.
Whilst the drama on the home-front is nicely recreated with moments of playful joviality – the eventual celebration of getting the generator to work and the resulting serenade from The Boss (“Ohhh, ohh, oh … I’m on fire”) is a somewhat clichéd standout – there is always an element of time running out. As close to the family as David gets, he still has his job to do, and these new emotions that begin to stifle him are complications that can only lead to trouble.
The patience of the hunter and the ceaseless waiting-game that he must play is actually very well depicted. I like the way that we keep seeing David travel the same stretch of road to and from the mountains, because this helps to foster that sense of routine in our minds. Other filmmakers would almost certainly have either just cut to the guy seen up in the damp greenery, or back at the cabin, and dispensed with the driving footage in-between after the first couple of trips. But this repetition actually aids the impact of one particularly shocking moment that occurs in the last act. However, what I will perhaps criticise is the scenery, itself. You know, it is almost perfunctory for reviewers to cite location work as being “almost a character in its own right”. I know. I’ve done it myself many times. But as lush and as varied as these genuine Tasmanian locales are, they are not, with the exception of one view from a cliff-top promontory, at all breathtaking or beautiful. They are wet, clammy and surprisingly bleak. As, indeed, I suppose they really are. But I’ve read the same refrains about the setting of the story a few times now – about how gorgeous and lyrical and mystical it all is. Well, I’ve seen some amazing landscapes in my time – both for real and cinematically – and this imagery did not make me want to venture out to Tasmania at all. It appeared neither unique, nor beguilingly mysterious. It did, however, feel real and untainted. Which can only aid the impression of a land being spoiled by the presence of the hunter. The use of CG snowflakes is blended, from shot to shot, seamlessly with the real thing, and I do like the fact that it is reflected in the film how the region can receive all types of weather in one day. The CG, however, does make its presence rather overtly felt during onekey sequence, and the movie’s mystical prize, as scrawny and as sympathetic as it is supposed to be, does come a cropper in a few small frames.
Although I would love to really sing the praises of Nettheim’s film – I am quite a fan of such reflective mood pieces, especially when they set out to plumb the depths of a man’s soul without an over-dependence upon metaphor – I found The Hunter much too slow for its own good and with a climax that may be emotionally cathartic but remained largely unsatisfying in many ways. I will stick my neck out here and say that I believe the secret is to watch the film again a second time … and then you may find that a fuller, more properly rounded appreciation is granted. There may not be any new clues to discern or little nuances to spot that you didn’t see first time around – the film is pretty much played straight-ahead from the get-go – but the mood is more affecting once you understand the parameters of the story and accept what it does show you as being poignant and relevant, rather than awaiting the things that it simply doesn’t.
For some people I guess the film will always be elusive and disappointing. It may have received critical plaudits from various festivals that it played at last year, but the press response accompanying its theatrical release upon these shores has been lukewarm at best. It wants to be an eco-message, and a tentative family drama of burgeoning affection and haunting tragedy. It wants to be an outdoors mystery about something primal, sacred and beautiful sought out by commercial ogres in an elegiac treatise upon the fragile nature of the wild and our own need for spiritual justification. And I would say that it succeeds on the first two levels, but comes slightly unstuck on the third. However, what let it down the most are the more formulaic tangents that the screenplay insists upon making. You see it also wants to be a thriller, with some strangely Bourne-like moments involving deadly “assets” that just don’t fit into the overall theme of self-discovery and redemption, and a corporate accusation that seems both old-hat and numbingly elliptical, as well as a clash of cultures that doesn’t, well, clash with anywhere near the clout or resonance you expect it to.
There is action here, which is what the blurb typically enhances, but it is incredibly sparse and really doesn’t work in the overall context of what is going on, coming over as neither thrilling nor satisfying enough. I would say that if this was the course the story had to take then, if anything, we needed more of this sort of thing. The idea of a sinister corporation at large is profoundly contrived, not to mention hackneyed, and its agenda is just left to hang in the misty mountain air at the end of the day. I’ve not read the original novel, but the film seems rather too content to just infer that these company executives have terrific SPECTRE-like connections around the globe, and we are just expected to believe that they would invest so much time, effort and money into a quest for a long lost animal. This element comes across as much too glib and becomes a slightly daft flavour in what is otherwise quite a tasty mountain-stew.
But, to combat this shoehorning, Nettheim’s direction is measured and occasionally meditative. He likes to keep the camera upon Dafoe which is, naturally, a tremendously effective course of action. Dafoe’s face is not unlike some alien landscape, a gargoyle-like carving that holds a thousand stories within its crags and fissures. He is one of very few actors who doesn’t have to say anything at all – the camera could merely observe him going through ninety-minutes of bemused expressions and yet you’d feel eminently entertained, if a little disturbed. Nettheim doesn’t enhance the few action scenes with any whip-crack editing, and he likes to maintain an almost traditional approach to scene structure, letting the actors go about their business without any decorative visual elaboration, and revelling in the gaps between their words. As a result, the film feels mannered and roomy. It doesn’t rush, and it takes pleasure in the small moments and the emotional lulls.
The score from Matteo Zingales, Michael Lira and Andrew Lancaster is one of those very typical for this sort of existential and sombre mood piece, and I would say now that its ambient textures and floating, ethereal dreamcasting is downright clichéd. The makers discuss elements of this committee-written score in their commentary and, being a devoted and confirmed obsessive of film-music, I am always receptive and appreciative to how others perceive themes and the emotions that they conjure … but I’m afraid that I cannot share their enthusiasm for this work. Although perfectly dour, appropriately moving and melancholic, and gently evocative of the natural wilderness and the dark heart of man, I found the score to be quite soporific and bland, only adding to the cloying sense of just waiting around for something to happen.
It may be very well acted and balance upon a neat and slightly unusual premise but, ultimately, the film leaves too many issues unaddressed and too many questions unanswered to really fully satisfy. And yet, sitting here on my fence, I found the film oddly affecting and quite difficult to dislodge. Isn’t it strange how the films that disappoint you in some way – especially those that you had no real preconceptions of – tend to leave an imprint on your mind? Maybe it is because of this sense of unfinished business that they replay in your head, nagging you with the tantalising possibility that you may have overlooked something pretty damn vital that helps it all make sense. But, either way, The Hunter is a quiet, yet menacing portrait of obsession and redemption that is bound to please at least as many people as it infuriates.
And Willem Dafoe, as ever, is superb.
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