Willem power – The Hunter review

The Hunter – Starring Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor and Sam Neill. Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Rated M. By Simon Miraudo.

There are two tigers in Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter. The first is the mythical Tasmanian tiger; long thought to be extinct, rumours of its reappearance have piqued the interest of certain mysterious parties. The second is the eponymous hunter played by Willem Dafoe; so lean and suitably chiseled he looks right at home stalking the Australian wilderness. Dafoe has always been a physical actor (Bobby Peru anyone?), but few would consider him a hard body. Still, after seeing him slathered up with camouflaging body paint – as if he were about to face off against the Predator itself – you’ll wonder why the 56-year-old actor has not been invited to join The Expendables. He’d no doubt give those senior citizens a run for their money in the badassery stakes.

Don’t let me give you the wrong impression about Nettheim’s film of course. Despite the way I’ve described Dafoe’s physically intriguing and imposing performance, this ain’t Predator. The Hunter is based on the novel of the same name by Julia Leigh, who made her feature film debut earlier in the year with Sleeping Beauty (which should better indicate the tone and pace of this flick). I must admit, I find it a little difficult to parse Leigh’s texts; trying to unpack them can often be a futile and frustrating exercise. Whereas the virtually unreadable Sleeping Beauty is dripping in ambiguity and begs for deeper analysis, The Hunter – which is similarly ambiguous and deals with a transient and enigmatic lead character – still works as an entertaining and engrossing film.

Dafoe stars as American mercenary Martin David, who is tasked by the head of the shady RedLeaf Corporation (Jacek Koman) to find the last Tasmanian tiger and secure as many biological samples of the animal as possible. Unquestioning of the beast’s existence (or, at least intrigued by the challenge), he heads to Hobart and is put up at the Armstrong household. Here, he finds the anti-depressant popping Lucy (Frances O’Connor) mourning the death of her husband Jarrah, while her kids, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock), eagerly – and blindly – await their father’s return from the woods. Martin finds himself caught in the middle of an ongoing stoush between the local environmentalists and the angry loggers (Sullivan Stapleton, Dan Wyllie) they’ve put out of work. Even worse, his tracker Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) seems to have it in for him, and he later discovers that Jarrah went missing while on a mission similar to his own. The hunter becomes the … well, you get it.

Television veteran Nettheim makes his first film in over a decade here, working on a script by Alice Addison (Nettheim and Wain Fimeri are credited with the first adaptation of Leigh’s novel however). Although a few moments feel a little overdone (bombastic score where none is required), The Hunter is a nicely understated thriller with a killer payoff. The wonderful opening sequence – in which the mission is offered to Martin, should he choose to accept it – has enough of an enticing hook to propel the film forward, holding our interest, even as the pace of the film begins to sag. To describe it as a ‘slow-burn’ feels inadequate; thankfully it’s not as glacial (or as impenetrable) as Sleeping Beauty. When the final act arrives, we’re treated to a thrilling Bourne-esque showdown in the harsh Tasmanian terrain, followed by a climax of rather stirring beauty (also buoyed by Dafoe’s starring turn). It’s a shame that there is no real sense of time in the film; does Martin spend days in isolation on the hunt, or is it weeks?

3.5/5

Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

The Hunter arrives in Australian cinemas October 6, 2011.

One Response to “Willem power – The Hunter review”

  1. SPOILERS

    I’m not sure it is particularly ambiguous. I think the main thing Leigh and Nettheim are getting at here is that it is big corporate interests which drive how the people understand their environment: everyone in the film is below the big decision makers is mainly relating to the forest – and the Tiger which ends up being symbolic of nature as a whole – as it’s constructed by the logging company, weapons company and university: a way to get paid. (I think the scene of the greeny around the campfire telling Dafoe about his job looking for the tiger is really important here because it not only drives Dafoe’s awareness that the Tiger sightings are well out of the bag but because it puts everyone: greenies, loggers, researchers and bio-prospectors, on the same level).

    I think the film is also arguing that the corporate interests end up warping the human relations around them. Dafoe’s character sees the only solution as destroying the thing that causes them to meddle in peoples’ affairs but in doing so destroys something else that’s precious. I think it’s pretty neat that they present the privileging of human interests over natural affairs as a bittersweet moment.

    On a formal level I think your comments on the score and the lack of a real sense of time (particularly missed in that final sequence – I think it might have worked better if he’d let more time pass between dissolves) are absolutely spot-on. However I was also annoyed by some directorial cliches: the slow dolly in on the phone, the final confrontation in the rain etcetera. Still, when it works it works really well; there’s some magnificent location work and that “homecoming” sequence is superb.

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