Willem Dafoe is a man engulfed by the wilderness in the biocentric, Australian drama The Hunter. Wonderful cinematography and a thought-provoking existential subtext make this film, from director Daniel Nettheim, compelling despite it not fully exploiting the vivid atmosphere of its raw, natural setting.
A supreme actor, Willem Dafoe has always had a screen presence that is strangely alluring. The basic synopsis of The Hunter – Dafoe stepping in to the fearsome wild to hunt down the mythical Tasmanian tiger – makes for a tantalising prospect. It could be an opportunity for an opaque character study of a tormented soul thrown deep in to some sort of misty abyss; that would not be everybody’s cup of tea, too strong for some, but it would promise an extreme, temperamental film. But, in actuality, The Hunter has a more linear – but still foreboding – mood, based on the complexities of a broad narrative rather than a straight-forward battle of Man versus Nature.
Martin (Dafoe) is a mercenary and professional hunter who is given the task by a shadowy corporation to find the Tasmanian tiger – a fox-like creature believed to be extinct. He is introduced via his meticulous routine of taking a bath with a grooming kit perfectly aligned by the basin as classical music blares from an iPod dock. Like a hybrid of a tepid James Bond and Bear Grylls, it is evident that Martin has a calculated personality despite his expertise in muddy, outdoor pursuits.
Fronting as an academic researching the Tasmanian devil, the aloof Martin is holed up at a run-down family home that acts as a base camp for his expeditions in to the bush. It is Martin’s relationship with the family that provokes warmth in an otherwise cold persona. He looks after the two children of the lethargic mother (Frances O’Connor) who haplessly awaits the return of her missing husband. The family of conservationists moved to the area to protest against tree logging which has caused violent tension in the town. The locals, including the furtive Jack (Sam Neill), recall the redneck antagonists of John Boorman’s Deliverance.
The narrative takes an unexpected turn that genuinely stirs empathy, but the moments of Dafoe alone in the wild are the most captivating with the Tasmanian landscape beautifully captured. A Natty Bumppo for the twenty-first century, Martin parades the environment with stealthy consideration. As he begins to contemplate the life of the animal he stalks, which may be the last of its kind – destined to hunt alone and wait for death – he realises a parallel with his own existence. Conflicted and less detached from humanity due to his interaction with the family he begins to re-evaluate his circumstance, but the hunt is already on.
Spurred on by Willem Dafoe’s outstanding performance, The Hunter reflects on Darwin’s refrain ‘the struggle of life’ with a clinical tone. The figurative significance of nature is a constant but its potential is never fully realised in order to create a truly spectacular atmosphere. Still, there’s more than enough to genuinely provoke thought and invest emotion – other than the gorgeous scenery that will have you googling the best way to get to Tasmania.