Willem Dafoe goes hunting an extinct species in the outback
In the wilds of Tasmania, a man with a particular set of skills is tasked with a unique task – finding what may be the last surviving Tasmanian Tiger in order to harvest its DNA for science.The Hunter is based on a 1999 novel by Julia Leigh, with the screen version directed by Australian helmer Daniel Netthein. The plot synopsis makes it sound like it might veer in the direction of science fiction territory but the film itself is much more subtle, spare and engaging than you might think.
Much of that is down to lead Willem Dafoe. As a film produced on a modest budget, it must have been tempting to use only local Australian talent but the presence of a world class performer like Dafoe really helps to elevate the material.
The island of Tasmania gets almost equal star billing – with sweeping helicopter shots and intimate moments in the forest illustrating the harsh beauty of the location shooting. There are many arresting images in The Hunter but cinematographer Robert Humphreys resits the urge to go for a stylised look, keeping everything grounded and enhancing the meticulous attention to detail of the main character.
It’s that detail, and the rather sparse dialogue, which makes it immediately apparent that the film is sourced from a novel. Our lead's tools and traps and tracking skills are all given a large chunk of screen-time and much of the film is spent watching him walk from one isolated location to the next, searching for the smallest clue that this near mythical beast may actually have survived for all these decades in the wild.
It’s that mystery which sustains the film, giving it an edge over a mere survival thriller or drama. The Hunter also layers on moments with a host family – a mother with two kids who have recently lost their father to the Tasmanian forests. Dafoe becomes predictable embroiled in their lives, as his search for the Tiger begins to parallel his one for their father and for some meaning in his own life.
There’s a symbolic level to The Hunter too, of a man who is himself something of a relic on a quest to find a possibly extinct species which adds some depth to the final third and director Nettheim even throws in some intrigue, vacillating allegiances and one tension filled action scene to spice up matters further.
Released to little fanfare in Australia last year, The Hunter is an effective and terse thriller with an engaging lead performance, stunning scenery and a story which is less predictable than you might expect. And Nettheim manages to sustain this unusual tone for much of the running time, with only the final few scenes surrendering to needless sentimentality and a few generic mis-steps along the way. Worth checking out on limited release or home video.