A slow study in patience and humanity, The Hunter takes an introspective attitude. With Willem Dafoe’s stark features haunting the solitude of the Tasmanian wilds, The Hunter delivers a quiet and somewhat meandering story that wallows in self-importance and social agenda.
What I found so disappointing about this film is that it could have engaged if it had limited its focus to a man-vs-nature scenario. Instead, it opted for a wide and weighty vista of social and existential issues.
Dafoe stars as Martin David, a slightly sinister and mysterious “naturalist” hired by a secretive biotech agency to find the fabled last Tasmanian Tiger. The Tasmanian Tiger is thought to be extinct, and if Martin finds one it will probably be the only one left in existence. The agency’s motives are left in shadow, though the Tasmanian Tiger’s genetic material is sought, with implied new drug possibilities.
Martin is a very precise man who keeps to himself and is an obvious expert in hunting, tracking, and other survival skills. He heads out to rural Tasmania to hunt down the tiger, and becomes involved somewhat unwillingly with a local woman and her two children.
One of the best features of this film is the gorgeous footage shot on location in Tasmania. With plenty of sweeping shots and long vistas of wilderness to bolster the slow-paced story, The Hunter delivers on the visuals. There is some also great actual video footage of the last known Tasmanian Tiger from the early 1900s. These clips interspersed at the outset of the film build a since of authenticity as well as adding awareness of the environmental/social messages (species extinction). The use of CGI, which is very slight, is executed superbly. The Hunter is heavy on natural lighting and footage/settings, but the CG additions look amazingly realistic.
Another bonus was the musical score. It boasts a sweeping orchestral score that echoes the vast and open visuals. It also helped to add some drama and tension to the scenes that otherwise would have been plodding and empty.
Daniel Nettheim directs this piece, and the introspective atmosphere he reaches with wide film shots and long, slow scenes without dialogue, is both effective and detrimental. It’s a drama, and there are some intense scenes. But the length between these moments is mired in drawn-out scenes simply too devoid of action, or anything much at all except environmental shots. What this means is that the narrative loses steam and meanders.
Dafoe brings his “A” game to The Hunter. He is completely believable as the steely “hunter” with hidden depths, and his craggy looks seem to echo the environment an atmosphere. The woman he befriends is played efficiently by Frances O’Connor, and Sam Neill steals many a scene with his acting expertise, despite having a small supporting role.
The open shots of untouched rocky and wooded valleys, and the vast amount of time spent in dialogue-free wanderings, created a very effective feeling of isolation and, at the same time, an oppressive threat. Nature itself is cast as an enemy, and then the movie throws in some very human baddies to up the ante. The hunter is hunting, and being hunted, and the visuals lead us with careful but somewhat meandering patience to the point of the story; that Man is Man’s worst enemy.
It is a man alone that goes out against the elements to find this symbolic entity, represented by an animal that is the last of its kind. As he hunts for his prey, the hunter becomes more and more a force of nature.
But the story, based on a book by Julia Leigh (interestingly, the director of the psychosexual indie Sleeping Beauty), is rife with agenda. The film gets bogged down with ample political/social agendas running within the more primal battle. There’s the “Greenies,” or the educated tree-hugger types who are fighting for conservation, and want to study and research the wilds. Then there are the men of the town fighting for jobs, the loggers and the hunters who hate the Greenies. Then there is the big bad drug company that wants the Tasmanian Tiger’s genetic material for profit and gain.
In the end, the Hunter has reached an applaudable self-awareness. But he also makes a decision that seems antagonistic to his new-found awareness, and that caters to some of the social conservationist agendas prevalent in the film. Instead of a slow and steady build with a bang of an ending, The Hunter meanders to a smoky ending that leaves audiences feeling slightly cheated.