Written by: Alice Addison & Wain Fimeri based on the novel by Julia Leigh.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Martin David), Sam Neill (Jack Mindy), Frances O'Connor (Lucy Armstrong), Sullivan Stapleton (Doug), Callan Mulvey (Rival Hunter), Morgana Davies (Sass Armstrong), Dan Spielman (Simon), Finn Woodlock (Bike Armstrong).
The Hunter of the title is Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary who is hired by a shadowy corporation to head to the forest of Tasmania and find the Tasmanian Tiger – an animal thought to be extinct ever since the 1930s. There are still reported sightings of the animal – which despite his name is not a cat, and despite its appearance is not a dog – for years, and even more recently. His job is to find and kill this animal, collecting samples of its fur, tissue, blood and organs, and make sure no one else can find the remains. He arrives, and finds the living arrangements that have been set up for him are not ideal – he is to stay with Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two kids – daughter Sass, who never shuts up, and son Bike, who never says a word. The house is a mess, and has no electricity. Lucy’s husband has been missing for a year – and he wasn’t too popular when he was around. The only business here is logging, and he was a tree hugger. Martin’s cover story – of a university professor studying Tasmanian devils – doesn’t hold much water. The locals are weary of him – they think he’s either there to be a thorn in their side about logging, or is the latest in a long line of people hunting the tiger. Either way, they don’t want anything to do with him. If local Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) didn’t keep them off of him, there seems like a great possibility that Martin would be killed.
The Hunter really tells two stories – one more interesting than the other, but both effective. The better of the two is of Dafoe’s Martin by himself in the wilderness stalking his prey. These scenes are quiet and fascinating, as we watch Dafoe, surrounded by nothingness, going about his work like an expert. The other story line is about Martin slowly bonding with Lucy and her kids. Lucy has been depressed ever since her husband disappeared and has been on drugs ever since. The kids have essentially been left to fend for themselves – their friend Jack helps out, but there is something in Sam Neill that makes him instantly untrustworthy. As he spends more time with this broken family, they start to heal – Lucy comes out of her depression, and they become a sort of makeshift family, and Martin begins to rediscover his humanity. He doesn’t become a good guy per se, but he’s better than he was.
What I admired about the film is how ambiguous it is. This is not a black and white film, where the lines between good and evil are clear, but is instead blurred. The film does not spell everything out for the audience – what really happened to the husband is clear, but how it happened is, and the same is true about a tragic incident late in the film. While Neill’s Jack is certainly not as trustworthy as he appears to be, he isn’t really a villain either – he does what he thinks is right and feels guilt when things go wrong. Lucy is certainly not a good mother, loading herself up with drugs, and leaving her kids to fend themselves when they need her most – and yet, you feel for her too. She doesn’t know how to go on. Even the local loggers, so surly and mean, are just men worried about their jobs and families – even if they have perhaps gone too far to protect them both.
And nowhere is this ambiguity more apparent than in Martin’s character – and Dafoe’s excellent performance. Dafoe has often been called on to play villains – he has a face that can easily contort into a sort of evil madness. But remember, he also once played Jesus Christ, and he often has a Christ-like serenity to his work. This is apparent in his scenes out in the wilderness. His character is forced to confront his life, and the choices he has made to this point. When he finally is confronted by the choice the whole movie has been leading to, he makes one that some will likely to hate, and some applaud. The movie leaves that choice up to you to decide.
The Hunter is a quiet movie, and one that lets the audience do most of the work. It is anchored by Dafoe’s performance, but credit must also go to director Daniel Nettheim, who walks the fine line between slow and boring wonderfully, and Alice Addison’s screenplay, based on Julia Leigh’s novel. Some will hate The Hunter, some will love it. But no matter what, it is a film that sticks in your head.