Cinema Review: The Hunter
Currently on Limited Release at UK cinemas
The Hunter is an Australian movie based on Julia Leigh’s multi-award-winning debut novel of the same title. Filmed against breathtaking Tasmanian vistas, the film is a visual triumph throughout. It is also a triumph of acting with excellent performances all round, especially Willem Dafoe (who continues to show what an intense performer he can be when given the right material).
The film is shot by long-time TV director Daniel Nettheim with a surprisingly fine eye for widescreen splendour. His approach is reminiscent of other recent dramas like The American and Winter’s Bone, in the sense that the whole thing is a very character-driven piece with opaque plotting and an intentionally slow-burning narrative. Plot-wise there’s little similarity to those two films, but the overall style is instantly recognisable. Anyone expecting a rollercoaster ride of outdoor action – as suggested by the film’s misleading trailer – may well end up disappointed. If, however, you allow yourself to adjust to the film’s deliberate and carefully measured pace, there’s quite a bit to admire.
Enigmatic soldier of fortune Martin (Willem Dafoe) is hired by shady biotech company, Red Leaf, to go to Tasmania in search of the legendary Tasmanian Tiger. This strange animal has long been considered extinct, but rumours persist of its existence and tourists often frequent the vast wilderness in the hope of catching a glimpse of the mythical creature.
Red Leaf inform Martin that they have reliable information that a Tasmanian Tiger has been sighted. They want him to take fur and organ samples from the beast, then dispose of its carcass. Being a man of cold calculation, as ruthless as he is efficient, Martin accepts the assignment without questioning its deeper ecological implications.
Only later does his attitude towards the assignment change. His cover story involves posing as a university boffin observing Tasmanian Devils in the wild. To keep up this pretence he rents a room in the home of the dysfunctional Armstrong family – permanently sedated mother Lucy (Frances O’Connor), spunky girl Sass (Morgana Davies) and troubled, ever-silent youth Bike (Finn Woodlock). Against his own code of distant professionalism, Martin soon finds himself warming to the family and enjoying his time with them.
When Martin discovers that their father went missing in the wilderness several months earlier, apparently working for Red Leaf and searching for the same elusive animal, he begins to sense that there may be more to the job than meets the eye. During his long wanderings in the lonely wilderness he becomes more and more convinced that someone else is out there, watching his every move, stalking him as cunningly as he himself is stalking his prey.
The biggest failing of The Hunter is that it tries so hard to evoke a detached, mysterious aura around its characters that it never really engages on an emotional level. Dafoe hints brilliantly at a dangerous character with a dark past, his face etched with nervous concentration and troubled musings throughout… but at no point do we ever truly find out anything concrete about his back story. Sam Neill is similarly scuppered by his role as a shady character who seems to have a role in everyone’s business, often stirring trouble to his own devious ends… but any indication of what makes him tick, why he acts as he does, is never sufficiently defined. There is a scene late in the film which involves the off-screen death of some key characters, but once again the film’s emotionally detached approach renders these events curiously unmoving.
Indeed, that’s exactly what The Hunter is – curiously unmoving. It is beautiful, yes, but coldly beautiful. It is impeccably acted yet peopled by characters too obscure to connect with; continually intriguing and full of mystery yet never as truly compelling as it could be.
The Hunter is certainly worth watching, especially on the big screen where one can best appreciate its visual richness, but it’s hard to shake a nagging suspicion that the opportunity for something truly extraordinary has been missed. It is a good film – which, lord knows, is a welcome rarity in this summer of largely underwhelming cinema – but somewhere in here is a genuinely amazing movie which never quite manages to break out.
FMV Rating ***