Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Morgana Davies, Frances O'Connor, Finn Woodlock. (2012, R, 101 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 6, 2012
Willem Dafoe, his craggy visage looking ever more like the weathered strata of some holy mountain, is grumbly Canadian mercenary/tracker Martin David, who is hired by an unnamed military-biotech outfit to stalk and kill a creature believed extinct for nearly a century: the Tasmanian tiger. His handlers warn him there may be competition, but David, the professional that he is, takes the job and flies to Tasmania on Australia's southern coast. It's a landscape that fits Dafoe's face like a negative mold – visually arresting, pockmarked and jagged where it's not covered by impenetrable rain forest.
Once there, the hunter sets up shop with a local family. The father, a zoologist, has gone missing in the forest and the mother is hemmed in by grief (and on top of that, the cabin's generator doesn't work). He encounters hostility from the natives – they don't appreciate his assumed guise as an environmentalist, or, in their words, a "greenie," and receives unwanted assistance from Sam Neill's local guide, Jack Mindy. Thus begins a trek into an unmapped and biped-hostile world that is, by turns, treacherous, beguiling, and naturally unnatural. Dafoe, playing an enigmatic character, sets snares for his elusive quarry and the audience alike. By incremental degress, director Nettheim reveals the human being beneath the hunter/killer as David begins to bond with the mother (O'Connor) and her two young children, Sass (Davies) and Bike (Woodlock), in between his sojourns into the forest. As events grow increasingly perilous in the wild and in town, the hunter becomes the hunted.
If that synopsis sounds a tad predictable, the outcome of the film is anything but, and The Hunter, with its spectacular cinematography by Robert Humphreys, parallels Dafoe's character and that of his prey, both human and otherwise. Dafoe, as expected, is magnificent in the taciturn role, but the film tends to falter when he's not out stalking, combining as it does elements of family drama, environmental outrage, and outright suspense. It's a heady combo, but it doesn't always fit the overall framework of the film. How much better could it have been to have nothing but Dafoe, the tiger, and Tasmania itself, each and all at odds with the others, and in Martin David's case, himself?