Written by Sleeping Beauty (2011) director Julia Leigh and starring Willem Dafoe, Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter (2011) is a peculiar beast of a film; part introspective study on the human condition, part environmental thriller, culminating in a peculiar balancing act between its inherent mainstream sensibilities and meditative arthouse procedural. Hired gun Martin (Dafoe) arrives in Tasmania to traverse the island’s difficult terrain in search of the elusive Tasmanian Tiger – a creature thought to have been extinct since the 1920s. It’s a significant contract, financed by a surreptitious corporation with little or no room for mistakes.
On his arrival Martin finds his presence met with hostility by the local logging community who believe him to be an ecological surveyor sent to halt their development. However, as he comes closer to finding the legendary beast, Martin’s apprehensions only become heightened by his findings, quickly realising that the hunter has become the hunted. The Hunter sometimes struggles to mix its duelling narratives with enough emotional resonance, too often allowing its focus to seep into contrived narrative segments and clearly not brave enough to stick to its central (and by far most engrossing) theme of man’s constant need to search his past in search of answers for the future.
From the spurious claim of the Tazzy Tiger having paralysing venom all the way to the grieving family of convenient narrative ciphers searching for a male role model, The Hunter is more than guilty of relying on manipulative techniques to embellish a story which works best when left to Dafoe’s solitary jaunts into the wilderness. However, these issues soon become redundant whenever the film ventures into the uninhabited backwoods.
The film’s isolated Tasmanian territories, captured with an astonishing eye for natural beauty, culminates in a far more sombre and contemplative tone, effectively building a brooding atmosphere of anxiety and intrigue. Indeed, The Hunter’s most captivating scenes are wordless, often consisting of Martin building traps, tracking footprints and catching small animals for bait. It’s here in the island’s rugged interior that we forget the troubles of society, more focused instead on the bigger issue of our existence, with Dafoe’s eerily charismatic demeanour making for an unexpectedly mesmeric protagonist – all the better to get disoriented with.
Building towards a truly heart-breaking finale that’s regrettably necessary to halt the tragedy that transpires on screen, The Hunter is a film with tremendous style and mood diluted by a need to emotionally engage with the audience on a more conventional level. A visually striking allegory for the ever decreasing size of our planet, Nettheim’s psychological thriller gives us a existential portrait of one of the world’s few barren blind spots. It’s just a shame there’s too many signs of the ‘real’ world encroaching into this serene milieu.
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