Rating: ★★★½☆

Willem Dafoe is as reliable and dependable as actors come, taking on ambitious projects that often hew away from the commercial, most notably the controversial horror Antichrist. Teaming with veteran TV director Daniel Nettheim, Dafoe unveils yet another facet of his skill set as a quiet, sensitive soul for Aussie indie thriller The Hunter.

Dafoe plays Martin David, an American mercenary who is hired by a military biotech company to hunt down the presumed-extinct yet recently-sighted Tasmanian Tiger and collect tissue samples from it. He has a few months to discover it before competition arrives if, in fact, they are not already there. While on his excursion, David lives with a local family, Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Slowly, he begins to bond with them, and upon learning that the children’s father, Jarrah (Marc Watson-Paul), disappeared on the very same route he is taking, sets out to see what he can find.

Robert Humphreys’ striking, beautiful cinematography provides us with some awe-inspiring glimpses of the Australian outback, while Nettheim’s script, based off of Julia Leigh’s novel, prods the more sinister underbelly of local unemployed loggers who don’t take kindly to tourists, determined environmentalists and David’s inevitable, dangerous competitors for the prize. There is also a more tender side to the story, evidenced by the slow-building rapport between David and the family he resides with, each breaking the other’s defences down over a cross-cultural divide. Drawn ever more into their world, he helps to rehabilitate Lucy, who continues to grieve over her missing husband.

Once the expedition begins, we get to soak in the unusual flora and fauna of the Australian wilderness – the beautiful vistas alongside Dafoe’s strong, silent David going about his business, shooting creatures and setting traps. It’s a supremely atmospheric film without having to make too much of an effort; the natural majesty of this locale is enough, and Dafoe’s smouldering presence accounts for a lot also.

His excursion is compartmentalised heavily by constant setbacks and strange discoveries which bring him back to base. However, it mostly manages to stay compelling despite being light on narrative and unassuming – it is efficient, never barging its way through plot beats. The chemistry between Dafoe and his co-stars, especially the talented child actors, carries it through even when the focus is not on the hunt. We care about these characters, arguably more than the central premise itself.

The manner in which the hunter becomes himself the hunted does feel a little laboured, however, and relatively artificial excuses arise to bring him back home again and again, such as being knocked out by a branch. As the third act rolls around, there is the hope that David will end up fully immersed in the isolation of the Australian outback, but this does not occur until the film’s tail-end, at which stage the inevitably dramatic crux arrives, along with a few unexpected twists.

Much like Joe Carnahan’s surprisingly entertaining The Grey, Nettheim’s film serves up a slab of pungent philosophy alongside its chases and gunfire, a lamentation on the extinction of forlorn, beautiful creatures, and man’s part in that as a destructive force, as well as our eventual capacity for redemption. Aside from breezing through one devastating late-day revelation, this is a thoughtful, sinewy thriller that takes its time, but girds on a stellar, stoic performance from Willem Dafoe, as well as apt support from Sam Neil (as his guide) and promising child talents Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock.

The Hunter is in cinemas today.

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This article was first posted on July 6, 2012