The Hunter

The Hunter

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

An enigmatic mystery thriller with a human pulse, The Hunter is a bizarre proposition nestled in amongst this summer's blockbuster fare - it operates in a limbo between the arthouse and multiplex and probably could have been a sleeper hit at a quieter time of the year, but it deserves to find a discerning audience nonetheless. Anchored by a committed Willem Dafoe, TV director Daniel Nettheim's adaptation of Julia Sleeping Beauty Leigh's novel is a simultaneously sweeping and intimate cinematic experience, making the best use of the Tasmanian wild since suffocating convicts-go-cannibal flick Van Diemen's Land. While the script wraps up its ambiguities a little too neatly in the end, the themes it wrestles with are sensitively handled for the most part and resonate long after the credits have rolled.

Martin David is a professional tracker with a strictly business code; his work is his life, apart from a love of opera and his apparent affinity for the outdoors. A secretive contract takes him to a Tasmanian logging community where local industry is at loggerheads with 'greenies' who oppose their destruction of the leafy landscape. David is stationed with a dysfunctional family, where the mother never seems to leave her bed and two precocious kids constantly intrude on his living quarters. David passes himself off as studying the regional pest Tasmanian Devils, but his mission is actually to locate and kill a Tasmanian Tiger, presumed extinct since the 1930s but apparently sighted in the nearby terrain. Tasked with collecting samples for a dubious chemical corporation, he finds his guard penetrated by the family accommodating him, while the job proves more dangerous than he'd anticipated.

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As taciturn as ever - it seems like a million years since the live-wire maniac of Wild At Heart or even Spider-Man - Dafoe is front and centre right from the outset, appearing in pretty much every scene and gradually allowing fragments of humanity to glimmer out from beneath his frosty exterior. It's nothing we haven't seen the veteran thesp do before, but it's a pleasure to see him given such a dedicated vehicle, with solid support complementing rather than intruding upon his unique presence.

Sam Neill shines as an overly friendly guide, while Frances O'Connor does more with her love interest role than it probably deserves; both actors have to navigate their characters' implausible volte-face trajectories, but manage to conjure tangible chemistry with Dafoe. Meanwhile, Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock skirt the right side of annoyance as the moppets thawing our hero's heart, the latter especially working wonders through sheer expression with his speechless role.

As we follow Dafoe setting traps and negotiating the territory, we get a sense of a man with little purpose beyond his present mission; he doesn't even allow himself to enjoy the wilderness he prowls for a second, as unemotionally acclimatised to his surroundings as the animal he is stalking. The script occasionally communicates his existential crisis a little too on the nose, as when he observes that his quarry will 'probably just keep hunting and killing, waiting to die'; it's all too clear that these words apply to him too. The domestic scenes also diffuse the intensity of the outdoor footage, with his ability to hot-foot it home in his jeep preventing the film from attaining the overbearing atmosphere of the superficially similar Essential Killing.

The cinematography is suitably spectacular, if a little over-egged in places - the narrative is rhythmically punctured by smooth helicopter shots of prehistoric landscapes that are awesome to behold but convey little after the umpteenth example - while the score keeps the intrigue level high, only spilling over into sentimentality with some hippy-ish deployment of Bruce Springsteen, pretentious use of operatic arias and an abundance of swelling strings towards the end. The storyline takes some darker turns in its final stretch than viewers may expect, with a couple of heart-in-mouth situations kicking things up a gear and a climactic internal conflict that leads to a too-tidy resolution without leaving any easy answers.

Despite some pacing problems and a few lapses into trite philosophical angst, The Hunter is an accomplished pot-boiler, lifted a notch or two above the average B-movie by sterling performances and well-developed themes. The cynically minded may scoff at its pretensions as well as its earnestness, but it makes stunning use of its craggy locale and craggy-faced star. Although its ambitious addressing of various ecological, psychological and moral concerns may not always be as balanced or in-depth as it could be, the narrative offers enough surprises and Nettheim's direction is sufficiently assured to keep audiences absorbed and entertained for its tight run-time.

Reviewed on: 12 Jul 2012
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The Hunter packshot
A biotech company hires a hunter to track down the last Tasmanian tiger.
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Director: Daniel Nettheim

Writer: Wain Fimeri, based on the novel by Julia Leigh.

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O'Connor, Finn Woodlock, Morgana Davies, Sullivan Stapleton, Callan Mulvey

Year: 2011

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia

Festivals:

Australia 2012

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