Film Review: The Hunter

Willem Dafoe stalks his four-footed prey against a breathtaking wilderness backdrop in this moody thriller from Australia.

Willem Dafoe’s extraordinary face, with its startling proportions and rivulets of flesh, seems to have been fashioned for the sole purpose of playing the fixated title character in The Hunter. As a mysterious agent sent to the wilds of Tasmania to track down the last surviving Tasmanian tiger, the actor’s unwavering gaze almost singlehandedly propels the narrative of this haunting psychological thriller from Australia.

But The Hunter, based on an acclaimed novel by Julia Leigh (who recently made her directing debut with the erotic drama Sleeping Beauty), is more than a showcase for Dafoe’s singular mug. Precisely directed by Daniel Nettheim, a Sydney-based helmer with mostly TV credits to his name, it taps into questions of solitude and loneliness, obsession and repression of emotion, all tied up with an eco-conscious bow. Like the magnificent old-growth forests of its Tasmanian wilderness setting, Nettheim’s compelling, deliberately paced film is atmospheric and full of mystery, giving up its secrets reluctantly.

Dafoe plays a man posing as a naturalist named Martin David, who has come to the Australian island state of Tasmania ostensibly to study the native Tasmanian devils. His mission, however, is more sinister: He is a mercenary sent by an anonymous multi-national biotech company to track down the fabled Tasmanian tiger so its genetic material can be harvested. The tiger, a savage dog-like beast with a striped pelt, has been officially considered extinct since the mid-1930s, but interest is periodically stirred with rumored sightings.

Local guide Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) sets Martin up in a pre-arranged base camp—the disheveled home of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor) and her two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and the mute Bike (newcomer Finn Woodlock). It is a remote house perched on the edge of a vast wilderness and it echoes with loneliness.

Lucy, a hippie with a PhD, has been self-medicating with prescription medication since her eco-warrior husband, Jarrah, disappeared on the mountain plateau above, and her children are running wild.

Martin loses himself in his clandestine mission, prowling the stillness of the high country with fanatically focused intent. Dafoe keeps him locked down, an independent, single-minded creature of the hunt. A natural caginess allows him to hide his true mission from his hosts as well as the hostile townspeople, mostly loggers locked in a long-running feud with environmentalist protesters. Green is their least favorite color and they’re also deeply suspicious of foreigners, who are, in the words of Jack, “about as popular as a snake in a sleeping bag.”

The screenplay, written by Alice Addison after an original adaptation by Nettheim and Wain Fimeri, teases out plot points slowly. As Martin becomes aware that his own solitary forays into the backwoods are being tracked, his growing connection to Lucy and her children begins to peel back the layers of misanthropy he has wrapped himself in and the hunter finds himself confronted by his own emotional vulnerability.

The perfection of the environment, too, gets under his skin, as the landscape itself seems to mirror his shifting inner topography. The Hunter was shot entirely on location in Tasmania and quietly sweeping cinematography by Robert Humphreys (Unfinished Sky) maps the spectrum of untamed terrain and extreme weather conditions. Intermittent birdsong punctures the silences, while an economical score by Andrew Lancaster, Matteo Zingales and Michael Lira helps build a brooding tension. An unexpected burst of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” which shatters more than the stillness, is a master stroke.
The Hollywood Reporter