REVIEW: Willem Dafoe Goes on the Prowl in Flawed The Hunter
Man vs. beast, man vs. man, man vs. corporation, man vs. himself — The Hunter takes all these pretty ladies out for a spin, but can’t seem to decide which one to bring home. The set-up is so swift it could easily pass you by: Martin (Willem Dafoe) is contracted by a shady outfit to bag a Tasmanian tiger, presumed extinct, in the Australian wilderness. Rumor has it there’s one left out there, and what better reason to fully extinguish a species than in the name of pharmaceutical patent? Martin appears to have no particular feeling about this assignment; as long as his toiletries are properly lined up and he’s left alone, he doesn’t appear to have a particular feeling about much of anything.
Martin’s inscrutability is both a key element of all the above-listed plotlines and the reason no one of them is fully realized. Billeted in a remote Tasmanian home with two young children who have a missing father and a grieving mother (Frances O’Connor) who dopes herself through the days, Dafoe’s character is prepped for a transfusion of warmer, more human blood early on. Sass (Morgana Davies) is the big sister with the foul mouth and matter of fact attitude, Bike (Finn Woodlock) is the mystical mute little brother who draws pictures of Tasmanian tigers (a striking mix of jungle cat and mountain wolf) and seems to know more about his father’s whereabouts than he lets on. Both are utterly irresistible, and with their mother MIA they launch a full charm offensive, even jumping in the tub with Martin after he finally gets a broken generator — and some hot water — flowing again.
Scene by scene The Hunter, adapted from a novel by Julia Leigh, holds your attention like a pair of big, inquisitive eyes, or perhaps the point-blank scope of an automatic rifle. Director Daniel Nettheim finds a smooth, confident rhythm that almost carries the underdeveloped story (by Alice Addison and Wain Fimeri) across the finish line. In his new home Martin is assimilated into the children’s sprawl whether he likes it or not, and eventually he is moved to help their mother get back on her feet. In town he is inducted into the local dispute between the loggers and the “greenies,” a group of activists attempting to stop the exploitation of the land. Sam Neill plays a fixer of sorts, one with eyes for O’Connor’s fragile widow and a dubious connection to the company desperate for the Tasmanian tiger’s trophy glands. Strange things happen during Martin’s first trips into the wild: a shot is fired, a camera is rigged to monitor one of his traps, and a laser sight hovers near his head. The hunter is being hunted, but by whom?
Martin’s moral awakening would seem to be the center of the story — “man” being the only constant in all of the available themes — where human attachments interfere with the mercenary thrust of science, progress, or just mechanical job-completion. And to an extent it is: He develops a protective interest in his host family, even searching for signs of their missing father, with whom he has more in common than it first appeared. But the self-reflective side of that process — specifically the point of Martin’s mission and his feeling about it — only gets cloudier the closer he gets to his target. And it’s not the good kind of fog, which is on ample display in the mood-enhancing veils of mist captured by cinematographer Robert Humphreys, among countless other gorgeously textured shots of the teeming Tasmanian landscape.
The paradox of Martin’s character feels accidental, or at least unresolved: The more we evidence we get of a beating heart on the homefront, the more mysterious that heart seems out in the wilderness. Because the film alternates between Martin’s expeditions and furloughs, the contrast becomes starker as the film goes on, and it’s hard not to lose interest in a hunt whose stakes seem unclear to the hunter. The conflict that develops around the terms of his assignment is less convincing than it could have been, making for a rushed and unsatisfying, pseudo-nihilist climax. Still, Dafoe and Woodlock in particular have a few moments that transcend the plot holes surrounding them; in a movie with this much going for it there’s no shame in letting them take direct aim at your heart.