The Hunter

Fri, Jul 6, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O’Connor, Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock 15A cert, Cineworld/IFI/Light House, 102 min

MERCENARY AND loner Martin (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a sinister biotech company to travel to Tasmania in search of a tiger. His paymasters hope to extract DNA and synthesize the anaesthetic used by the animal to paralyse its prey. The marsupial has been presumed extinct since the 1930s, but unconfirmed sightings suggest the beast may yet be at large.

In wildest Tasmania, Martin takes lodgings with Lucy (Frances O’Connor), a widowed mother confined to bed with depression, and her two adorable, unkempt youngsters, Sass and Bike.

Out on the trail, local gruff Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) acts as Martin’s guide, but others are less welcoming. Bars fall silent as Martin enters them. Scary yokels, convinced that the American is a “greenie” – an environmentalist out to finish the logging industry – give him hell. Despite their menace, Martin, with help from the mute Bike, stumbles on a possible Thylacine lair. Sadly, as Martin grows closer to his hosts, Jack grows increasingly jealous. Is the hunter about to become the prey?

A stately, existential thriller,

The Hunter straddles between cinematographer Robert Humphreys’s grand, grey, drizzly tableaux and metaphorical function. The quest for the tiger, ultimately, is rather less important to the film than Martin’s burgeoning humanity.

Dafoe is excellent, effortlessly shifting from a cold, calculating register to fuzzy, parental warmth. An award-winning score provides subtle compliment and a perfect antidote to the Horner-Zimmer axis of bigger, better, louder musical accompaniments.

Unhappily, if you didn’t know the Australian film was adapted from Julia Leigh’s novel, you’ll know it by the second act. The Hunter is simply too emblematic and dependent on tidy dichotomies and parallels to have been written as an original screenplay. The feral creature is a loner, unseen and uncorrupted by human contact (get it?). Lucy is incapacitated by grief just like a Tassie Tiger’s prey might be. The mute boy provides a silent double for Dafoe’s reticence.

We could draw a veil over these visible plot marks if the final sequence weren’t such an unholy, implausible mess. Interesting, nonetheless.