Director: Daniel Nettheim
Cast: Willem Defoe, Frances O’Connor, Sam Neill
Plot: A hunter (Defoe) is hired by a big company to hunt down and kill the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger.
While Frances O’Connor and Sam Neill play fine supporting parts in this indie Australian thriller, The Hunter is predominantly Willem Defoe’s show. He plays a by-the-book professional, coming across as a silently efficient assassin figure, only his targets of choice are rare animals, spending weeks on end hunting and tracking his prey, before exacting the precise kill. His latest contract: finding the Tasmanian Tiger, a creature long thought extinct, although evidence surfaces that there is one final member of the species, prowling alone in the Tasmanian forests. Defoe’s Martin David is sent over to a small home in the woods, where he spends his time with a depressed mother and her two children, all grieving the loss of their father, who went missing in the woods, while either protecting the forest from logging companies or hunting the infamous tiger himself. While trying to stick to the job at hand, Defoe finds himself becoming more and more distracted by the family’s plight. It is a silently touching role from Defoe. This independent kind of movie is the sort of thing Defoe does best, stripping away the melodrama persona mainstream movies tend to lump him with and just allowing him to burn intensely, filling a screen with his aura. Defoe’s character emotes his feelings with minimal expressions, although we never lose touch with the character, always feeling the internal struggle he is trapped in. The movie is best when Defoe is alone in the forest, asked to hold our attention with just his movements. He hits the correct beats with the ease of a seasoned professional. The Hunter is one for Defoe fans definitely.
Sadly, The Hunter is a little bit of a misfire of a film in my eyes. It is described as a thriller. Defoe’s character hunts a rare animal in the woods, while a stereotypically evil company gets predictably twitchy when the hunt takes longer than expected. Meanwhile, there is a conflict between O’Connor’s ex-husband’s eco-warrior and the workers who lost their jobs due to environmental protests. Every time Defoe returns from the woods from a fortnight tracking, he finds the home life drastically changed, creating this sense of him being the absent hero, fixing problems around the house, only to have his absence used against him. A lot of this film is the frustration of being unable to do what you want to do (protect the family, find the tiger). There is a wonderful message in that, but it does not make for an entertaining thriller. The Hunter is a very slow-burning treat. It will annoy viewers who came to this film, hoping for a movie where Defoe hunts a dangerous and vulnerable predator in the woods. Like the Grey with Liam Neeson, the story pushes against expectations and comes out with thrills of another kind. I don’t mind that as both of these movies played a very clever card. The problem with the Hunter is that the thrills aren’t replaced adequately. The Hunter is probably better described as a character piece, where Martin David figures out the meaning of life, while the social messages of environmental conservation and animal hunting burn in the background. Again, it is all very interesting although the balance between quiet character study and actual thriller trademarks isn’t done properly. In the last half hour, it gets more traditionally entertaining, with a rival hunter introduced to the mix and shock character deaths. However, these points are done half-heartedly and feel forced. Either the rival hunter was the original plan and the character study is killing time, rather than an extension of the story; or perhaps the director does mean to make this a slow-burning character study, but became painfully self-aware his movie lacked the punch a new villain could introduce. Either way, the addition shows weakness and uncertainty that proves my disappointment with the picture as a whole.
The ending is fantastic however. The tiger only really features symbolically in the film, so the idea that it might not even exist, that intangible, elusive light at the end of the tunnel, is present throughout. However, the choice of ending is quietly beautiful. Perhaps it is predictable, the only way a movie of this sorts could end, although there is something even more powerful about that decision in itself. It is heart-breaking, soul-destroying, resonant… a lesson in why we as humans, aren’t allowed good things.
Final Verdict: The Hunter is too slow-burning to be considered a good movie, but it does have some touching comments on humanity.