There are two exotic creatures of note in the Australian thriller The Hunter. The first is the thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian Tiger, a sleek, carnivorous marsupial that disappeared in the early 20th century. The second is that congenitally intense character actor Willem Dafoe, playing Martin David, a mercenary sent to the seventh continent to find a tiger, prove that rumours of the thylacine's extinction have been exaggerated – and then to kill it himself so that a mysterious biotech company can utilize its apparently fertile DNA.
Gaunt and hawk-eyed beneath a scraggy beard, Dafoe looks every inch the lone-wolf mercenary, and his performance is The Hunter's strongest feature. Dafoe is often an eccentric presence around the edges of big Hollywood movies (as in Spider-Man), but he dials down the weirdness here to play a man at once sustained and hollowed out by his skills. Every time Martin checks his co-ordinates or adjusts his equipment, there's a sense of ritual expertise.
Once in Tasmania, Martin tries to retreat into the rigorous particulars of his work, but his rented digs are a mess, literally and figuratively speaking. The rustic cabin where he's been placed by his handler (a suspicious Sam Neill) has fallen to shambles after its former owner disappeared on his own quest for the tiger. In between searching for tracks and laying traps, Martin hesitantly steps into the wreckage of the absent man's life, which includes a grieving, pill-popping wife (Frances O'Connor) and the couple's requisitely adorable children, who start to wear down his carefully maintained defences.
Pushed into the sort of domestic role that he's avoided via his vocation, Martin attempts to balance his burgeoning affection for the kids against his predatory commitments, and risks becoming another lost father figure. These doubling effects are distinctly literary, and The Hunter is indeed adapted from a novel by Julia Leigh, the Australian writer and filmmaker who made last year's icy necrophile fable Sleeping Beauty.
There's a palpable tension between the script's inert metaphors (Martin and his quarry are both the last of their solitary breed) and limp critique of corporate greed, and the rugged, muscular thrust of Daniel Nettheim's direction, which makes good use of the spectacular Tasmanian locations. Martin's descents into the region's foggy forests have the lush, enchanted quality of a melancholy fairy tale; kudos are due to cinematographer Robert Humphreys, whose camera is as restless and observant as Martin himself.
Whenever we're just watching Dafoe skulk purposefully through the foliage, The Hunter is mesmerizing. But the scenes in civilization are freighted with clichés: threatening locals who think Martin is an environmentalist trying to undermine their logging-based economy; a tentative attraction to O'Connor's sketchy character; predictable revelations about the true nature of his assignment; and those loveable little kids, who aren't so much characters as props in a lazily redemptive character arc.
By the time The Hunter jettisons its narrative ballast altogether and embraces its elemental appeal, it's too late. The near-mythic grandeur of its final scenes is less a welcome payoff then a suggestion of the truly striking film that might have been; it's ironic that a movie about a man who sets traps for a living would itself end up ensnared by formula.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Directed by Daniel Nettheim
- Written by Julia Leigh
- Starring Willem Dafoe and Frances O' Connor
- Classification: 14A
- 2.5 stars