Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is a mercenary hired to fly to Tasmania and hunt down the mythical Tasmanian tiger – possibly the last of its kind. Once on location in a remote wilderness, Martin comes to meet the troubled Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor) and her two children. Using the Armstrong household as a base of operations, Martin sets off on regular trips to find the target he has been hired to harvest. However, it soon becomes clear that what awaits Martin in the wilds of Tasmania is the last thing he ever expected – life.
‘The Hunter’ is one of those rare films which gain a strong enough reception to warrant international distribution, yet remain obscure enough to escape most people’s attention. Doing the rounds since autumn last year, Daniel Nettheim’s slow yet haunting adaptation of Julia Leigh’s novel has appeared at various festivals and events. It has the feel of a festival film (if there is such a thing), and does everything in its power to stay ambiguously sluggish throughout. The plot is full of promise and high concept anticipation, yet the delivery is mooted and contained. Everything about ‘The Hunter’ is designed to keep your interest just long enough to get you through the almost agonisingly slow vista shots and diluted character interactions.
Despite the sense of fairy tale within ‘The Hunter’, it has an existent air of realist cinema; much like the work of Fellini or Rafi Pitts (who, ironically, also has a film called ‘The Hunter’). A leering sense of doom hovers over the majority of the film, and gives weight to each interaction which Martin has during his time on screen. Nettheim seems comfortable watching Martin float around the harsh yet bewitching wilds of Tasmania, and one might suggest he prefers the moments when our protagonist is alone amongst the wildlife and vegetation, more than any other. Moments shared with the likes of Lucy and her family are more tepid glances than outright exposes of human emotion; every bit the strong-stranger-meets-broken-family-formula. That is not to say that these moments are wasted. If anything, it’s the gradual realisation that Martin needs these interactions, which lead the film to some of its more impactful moments. The strongest and most rewarding exchanges are when Martin gets time alone with Bike Armstrong (Finn Woodlock) a little boy so kaput and lost, that he almost becomes the key focus of Martin’s attentions.
There is a definite Australian sensibility about ‘The Hunter’. Much like ‘The Proposition’ or ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’, there is a level of moral turmoil amongst the characters, but it is demonstrated through their journey rather than their emotions. Seemingly random moments of pensive meandering dictate a development in Martin’s character, and guide us the viewer along with him rather than as him; we get very little insight into his mind’s eye or internal dialogue. This disconnected feeling only serves to dampen the impact of the film on first viewing, and draw apathy for the likes of Lucy Armstrong rather than sympathy for her; even long after Martin becomes more connected to them, we as an audience are still quite listless. Gradually the film ticks over, until we are suddenly met with a series of bog standard developments that could have been improved if the film had not wasted some much time arriving at this point. By then, we are just glad to have something happening, even if that something is the prelude to a relatively scoff inducing finale.
A fair effort all round from the cast. Sam Neil pulls out a performance that you don’t quite expect, and Frances O’Connor whittles away the character of Lucy until we are left with someone rather sad and interesting, yet we realise this far too late. But despite the best efforts of them all, the film belongs to Willem Dafoe; and he owns it big time. For a man who until recently spent his time voicing a Birds Eye munching polar bear, Dafoe takes to the character of Martin like an actor at the top of their game. This is Sgt Elias-style Dafoe, a haunted yet strong individual who fears life more than he fears death. From the very first scene to the last, Dafoe envelops himself in Martin and embraces the complex nature of his situation. This could so easily have been a strong silent type portrayal, yet Dafoe adds gentleness and confusion to his man-beast; something which we haven’t quite seen since Ryan Gosling in ‘Drive’.
If you see it at the cinema, ‘The Hunter’ will no doubt be showing once a night at some back alley screening room. If you wait until DVD, you will probably have to trawl six Blockbusters before you find the one unopened, unrented, sole copy. But that experience will be a preparation for watching the film itself. For all the traipsing, all the dead ends and false starts, there is a reward to be had with watching this little clandestine film. Much like the main character on his mission to find the Tasmanian tiger, there is a lot of waiting and a lot of thinking to be done, so just make sure you bring a big bottle of patience.
‘The Hunter’ is out at cinemas from July 6th.