The Hunter is the latest in a string of acclaimed Australian films in recent years, two other notables being Animal Kingdom and The Snowtown Murders. Whereas the latter two films focus on the gritty crimes committed by families, The Hunter breaks away and heads out into the wilds of Tasmania. Family is still key to the film, but so is the environment, local myths, and a sense of absolute solitude.
During our interview with Willem Dafoe, he mentioned that someone referred to The Hunter as an "eco-noir." It's a fitting label given all the above elements at play. You have the dark loner, you have an unraveling mystery, you have various other forces at work, and the events of the film test our hero's compassion while hardening his cynicism. To top it all off, he's been asked to find something that no longer exists.
Dafoe plays Martin David, a man hired by a company to search for the Tasmanian tiger. The animal really did exist at one time -- it was the largest carnivorous marsupial -- but was hunted into extinction by the 1930s or 1940s. Local legends insist that the creature is still hiding in the wild. There are even apparent sightings of Tasmanian tigers, as director Daniel Nettheim mentioned in our interview. We get glimpses of the beast in captivity through archival footage, its gaping jaws the size of a bear trap. The company is ominous and shadowy, so you can guess their motives aren't necessarily pure, nor will their methods of getting what they want.
In order for Martin to do his work, he winds up being hosted by a family at the edges of the wild. Lucy (Frances O'Connor) is mostly comatose when Martin arrives, so he's greeted instead by her kooky daughter Sass (Morgana Davies) and mute son Bike (Finn Woodlock). Martin's uncomfortable around them -- he's a misanthrope and they're adorably curious about the craggy stranger; he's into opera and they're into Bruce Springsteen -- but Martin's uncomfortable around other people in general. Like the mythical Tasmanian tiger out in the wild, he mostly just wants to be left alone.
While out alone, Martin looks entirely at peace. He hunts and field dresses small animals to bait his traps and snares, he treads the ground with confidence, and there's an absolute watchfulness wherever he goes. Even the slightest stir may be a sign that what he's looking for is nearby. Dafoe plays these scenes convincingly and is often dwarfed by the Tasmanian landscape. When we pull out for wide shots of him trekking across the land, I was reminded of an insect dutifully at work and yet completely insignificant and vulnerable. Here is something that can be squashed -- God's eye view of man.
There are greater complications than work and family, of course. Martin's initially taken around the wild by Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), whose allegiances you begin to question as soon as he's on screen. There's also the local politics to deal with given the clashes between loggers and environmentalists. This enmity is first hinted at through some bathroom graffiti at a bar, but it plays out explicitly not too long after that. And then there's the issue of the host family's missing father, who was also in search of the Tasmanian tiger at one time. All these tensions play out and Martin tries to negotiate between them, as if politics and human attachment are their own kinds of traps.
While the mystery of the Tasmanian tiger slowly unfolds, Nettheim fills the film with some moments of absolute beauty. The nature shots are remarkable as you might have gathered already. The landscape does its own sort of unique performance to help tell the film's story. Its skies paint themselves a certain way, the weather hits its marks. Dafoe had mentioned that nature was like an acting partner in The Hunter, and you do get a sense of simpatico between the Martin character and his surroundings.
The home that Martin stays at does its own sort of performance as well. It's a shabby place without electricity and in need of repair. It goes through its own kinds of changes along with the family thanks to Martin's presence. There are a few nicely put together scenes involving the house. One in particular is when Lucy finally comes out of her stupor. It's a great bit of storytelling. It comes at just the right moment when you know just enough to make it pinch with real heartache.
At a certain point of the The Hunter I began to worry. There are so many indications that the movie will shift away from an eco-noir quest to a sentimental family film. I feared that Dafoe's hardened character would melt completely and he'd become the new patriarch of this quirky Tasmanian family. I feared the obvious romance, the obvious ending, the artifice of greeting cards and Hollywood-at-its-worst. Sometimes there's nothing worse than stories that undercut real emotions and replaces them with predictable comforts. But thankfully, The Hunter was not that kind of film. The emotions are more ambivalent, the story has a harder edge and is actually more unpredictable than I had given it credit for.
For instance, Martin never really forges alliances with the loggers or the environmentalists. He's a pariah to both. The loggers think he's a no good greenie because of his association with Lucy's family, and the environmentalists are suspicious of him because he's out hunting animals in the wild. Martin's emotional distance and Lucy's own complicated feelings help avoid the awful clichés of a forced romance shunted into a superficial thriller. Even the Jack Mindy character isn't as simple as he first seems.
One of the commendable things about The Hunter is its ability to remain mostly unpredictable. It was adapted from a novel of the same name by Julia Leigh. I haven't read it, but there was an interesting change made for the film: in the book, Martin David is an Australian rather than an American or European. I can see why they did this. Coming from further abroad emphasizes the character's outsider status in Tasmania and makes him more alien/other, and, pragmatically, Dafoe's name will secure some extra money from financiers. Maybe Guy Pearce (who was also in Animal Kingdom) would have worked as well, but who knows. There's something about Dafoe's chiseled face and stonieness that makes him so well-suited to the role. While I likened him to a crushable insect above, he's one with the sort of carapace that would make him blend in with tree bark or stones.
But we have to come back to the Tasmanian tiger, which starts Martin on his quest. It becomes almost like a mythical beast, and these kinds of creatures wind up becoming symbolic -- dragons, griffons, even the white whale of Moby-Dick. Anyone obsessed enough to hunt for such elusive and impossible things invests meaning into the act of hunting and the quarry as well. It's this obsession that forces Martin away from the simple desire to melt into his host family -- again, he's pulled between extremes of closeness and total solitude. Maybe there's more to living than just the thrill of the hunt, but maybe not. In fact, Martin doesn't seem to be too thrilled to be hunting. He merely seems at home.
In this inability to tether himself to the world of other people, Martin finds his connection to the idea of the Tasmanian tiger. Isolation has its perks. The human world is a complicated thing, and maybe it's easier being alone in the wild. To be crushed out there seems less painful and somehow more humane.