Sunday, October 2, 2011

New Release Review: The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011)

The Hunter, released through Madman Films, opens in cinemas on the 6th October.

Producer Vincent Sheehan of Porchlight Films, who worked on last year’s fantastic Australian film, Animal Kingdom, has brought an adaptation of Julia Leigh’s acclaimed debut novel, The Hunter, to the screen. Alice Addison adapts the screenplay, with Sheehan also attracting the visionary direction of Daniel Nettheim and a quality ensemble cast including Academy Award nominee Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Frances O’Connor (Blessed) and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), to the project.

The Hunter is a slow-burning psychological drama that tells the story of Martin David (Dafoe), a skilled mercenary sent from Europe by a mysterious biotech company to the Tasmanian wilderness to hunt down the last suspected Tasmanian Tiger and to collect samples (blood, hair, organs) to be used in a research program. Though it is suggested that he should have an accompaniment, he rejects the assistance, desiring to complete the job alone. We never really learn anything about Martin’s past (or even his real name) but we assume that this type of mission - possibly resulting in the extinction of a species – is unlike anything he has been involved with before.

Local guide, Jack Mindy (Neill) arranges Martin’s base camp – a disorganized household without a working generator and a single despondent, drug-riddled parent, Lucy (O’Connor). Martin first meets her children, the talkative, but foul-mouthed Sass (Morgana Davies), and the shy, unspoken Bike (Finn Woodlock). He learns that Lucy’s husband, a zoologist with radical environmental ideas, had been missing in the wilderness for months. He keeps the nature of his mission a secret from the family and the hostile local townsfolk who immediately threaten Martin, believing him to be an environmentalist with an agenda to put a halt on deforestation and logging, and as a result, limiting their job opportunities.

He journeys into the majestic wilderness, laying an assortment of traps, taking notes and gathering intelligence about the land and local wildlife. Upon his returns to the house he begins to bond with the children, who have warmed to him like a father figure. He also helps with Lucy’s recovery to a healthy lifestyle. He begins to suspect that he may be being followed on his solitary hikes – the hunter becomes the hunted, you know? He hears gunshots and finds his vehicle vandalized and equipment sabotaged. As he draws closer to sighting the elusive animal, he grows increasingly frustrated by the pressure placed on him by his employers and the dangerous temperaments of the locals, empathizing with Lucy's family. As a man with a very strict moral code, his decisions result in tragic circumstances for everyone involved.

I found the film’s slow pace to be thoughtful, arousing a gradual heightening of tension, but I don’t think the film’s final third was as emotionally rousing as expected. I did find it episodic also, with each of Martin’s lonely ventures into the wilderness separated by less-effective scenes back at the house, where a very intuitive Bike adds to a crayon Tiger drawing further clues on where to find the animal. How he knew this (presumably through his missing father) and how Martin translated this into an accurate location on the map is quite improbable. While we assume each increasingly perilous excursion lasts twelve days, some consist solely of a scene or two of Martin meticulously laying out traps and wandering. They reveal next-to-nothing, but instead draw out the film, and delay the fairly inevitable conclusion.

Just when the film seems to be laboring, there are a few late introductions that give the film a much-needed kick. A new antagonist is introduced, and Martin’s motivations are re-enforced by tragic (but I felt, forced) circumstances. Where the film succeeds best, is establishing the reality of Martin’s work and having him realize what he is up against, and the repercussions of the choices he has made, and those he still needs to make. What will he do if/when he discovers the Tiger? Having learnt what he has about the company that hired him and the fate of Lucy’s husband, does he simply turn his head, or is the animal’s extinction more beneficial than its survival? There are some probing questions left for the audience to ponder, but because Martin remains a mystery, none of this is achieved in a particularly interesting way.

Dafoe, as always, was compelling. Martin is reserved, steely eyed, a loner committed to his work and good at it. His compassionate side is unlocked when he realizes his presence in Tasmania would not feel as useless if he assisted the family around the house. I found the aggressive, disheveled locals to be the epitome of stereotype. It seems to be genuinely accepted that the State of Tasmania is full of volatile inbred undesirables who are immediately repellent to visitors – “We don’t like your kind around here.” Every time we see Sullivan Stapleton he is yelling at someone or in their face. I don’t know why John Brumpton or Dan Wyllie were needed in their nothing roles, either. Morgana Davies gave a breakthrough performance in last year’s The Tree, but I thought she was quite irritating here. Frances O’ Connor’s romantic interest with Martin was certainly plausible, but not altogether convincing.

The widescreen cinematography is breathtaking at times, if a little preoccupied with the landscape. It is interesting to see the contrasts between the harsh, arid, rust-coloured terrain of central and western Australia depicted in Red Dog, and the misty, rain-drenched forests of Tasmania. Every time Martin makes a trip into the forest, the scene opens with aerial shots of the wilderness, reiterating his isolation and the threatening expanse. There are also a series of shots of plants, water pools and creepy caves. These are striking captures, but honestly, they got a little monotonous and their impact became non-existent the more the film progressed. Also, is it just me, or is Julia Leigh’s dialogue really poor? Similarly in Sleeping Beauty, the film she both wrote and directed, I found the dialogue to be a distraction. I’m not sure whether Addison altered this, but I can’t imagine why she would, considering there are long stretches of the film where dialogue is absent.

So, despite how it seems, I didn’t completely dislike the film. I remained absorbed throughout, but it was definitely disappointing. It’s very low-key, and while it delves into an array of moral crises surrounding animal extinction and land preservation, its messages aren’t poignant at all. It’s a one-man show, really, with none of the supports particularly memorable. I also found the film’s laborious pacing to grow a bit wearing, and the payoff wasn’t as profound as I had hoped, but it’s still an intriguing story, and some of the tech work is excellent.

My Rating: ★★★ (C)


  1. Sounds like something I'd like to see...and its out on my birthday, yaaaayyyyy!!!

  2. Aww, very cool! Well I'll try and remember to swing a Happy Birthday your way on Thursday! It's worth a look, but it's not particularly memorable. As I wasn't a fan of Norwegian Wood, I'm not sure what else to recommend on Thursday :-)

  3. The premise is intriguing -- it sounds like something I might like, despite its flaws.

  4. If you like slow-burning thrillers with lengthy absences of dialogue, environments that become a character in themselves (think How I Ended This Summer) and protagonists who experience moral complexities, then you will like this. Willem Dafoe is solid, too!