After sketchy reports of sightings of a live Tasmanian tiger, a creature long thought extinct, a ruthless global biotech corporation hires enigmatic mercenary Martin (Willem Dafoe) on a mission to track down the fabled beast, kill it and return with skin, blood and organic samples that will allow the company to make millions from the harvesting and patenting of its DNA.
Posing as a scientist, Martin arrives in Tasmania where local farmer and company employee Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) arranges for him to stay at the run-down, dilapidated farmhouse of missing eco-warrior Jarrah who disappeared in mysterious circumstances the year before leaving behind catatonically depressed wife Lucy (Frances O’Conner) and feral children Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Shaking Lucy out of her depression and bonding with the children awakens Martin’s buried humanity but his forays into the rainforest attracts the threatening enmity of the local loggers who may have been responsible for Jarrah’s sudden disappearance and are determined to run Martin out of town. However, his relationship with Lucy and the children also raises the ire of the ever-watchful, over-protective Mindy.
Increasingly suspicious about Jarrah’s disappearance and suspecting he may not be the first outsider to search for the elusive tiger, Martin ventures deep into the Bush, slowly coming to realise that the hunter may have become the hunted.
Based on a novel by Julia Leigh, writer/director of last year’s Sleeping Beauty, The Hunter is a slow-burning, measured allegorical tale, a philosophical investigation. Martin’s not just hunting the tiger; he’s hunting his own humanity, searching for a connection, a measure of redemption, a reason to live. His journey from rugged, closed-off individualist to hesitant surrogate father is entirely predictable yet satisfying. Whether in his room listening to opera and cleaning his gun or alone in the forest, laying traps and searching for a mythical animal, Martin exists in isolation, disconnected emotionally and physically from the world around him. His slow humanisation, not his mission, is what the film is about.
Dafoe is perfect in the role; tough but vulnerable, his increasingly craggy features as rugged and unknowable as the landscape he searches. While his scenes alone in the wilderness have the haunting poetry of Malick about them it’s in the scenes with Lucy’s children, particularly the foulmouthed livewire Sass (the excellent Morgana Davies) that the film comes to life, allowing Dafoe to show the tenderness and vulnerability that makes him such a compelling performer.
Despite trying to pack in so many plot threads it’s impossible to do justice to any of them (man-versus-nature, hunter and hunted, conspiracy thriller, mystery, family drama) and at times so ambiguous it verges on the opaque, The Hunter is as satisfying as it is frustrating, a dark, haunting metaphor of self discovery.
Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Conner, Sam Neill, Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock