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The Hunter (movie)

October 9, 2011

The Hunter. Daniel Nettheim. Porchlight Films, 2011

Tasmanian Tiger (lithograph)

Lithograph of the Tasmania Tiger, after H. C. Richter's illustration in The Mammals of Australia (Gould) (Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

A guilty confession. I hadn’t heard of or read Julia’s Leigh’s apparently highly acclaimed novel, The Hunter, before this recent Australian movie was made. I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it was just child-rearing busy-ness at the time of its publication. Anyhow, the film is now out and I saw it this weekend. It was produced – but not directed – by the same people who made the excellent Animal Kingdom, and its cast includes Willem Dafoe (as “the hunter”), Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor. All actors I am always happy to see. And it was set in our beautiful southern island state, Tasmania.

The basic plot is straightforward. Martin (Dafoe) is a mercenary sent by a biotech company to find and kill a Tasmanian Tiger in order to bring back the necessary biological specimens for, it appears, biological warfare purposes. Now, if you know your Tasmanian history, you’ll know that the Tasmanian Tiger has been officially extinct since 1936 – but, like the Loch Ness Monster, there are always reports of sightings. The story, of course, has complications. The company organises for Dafoe to stay with a widow (well, her husband has been missing for a year) and her two young children who live on the edge of the bush … and from there the mystery thickens somewhat. What did happen to her husband?

The movie tos-and-fros between Dafoe “hunting” in the bush and spending time in the large log house with Sally (O’Connor) and her young daughter and son. Dafoe, established in the opening scene as a task-oriented person who likes cleanliness and order, a loner, arrives at Sally’s cabin to find the children running free, the house dirty and disordered, and the mother out-to-it (from, we soon learn, prescription drugs) in bed. He finds nowhere else in town: the logging-oriented townsfolk mistake him for a “greenie” and are therefore not willing to accommodate him, so he settles into Sally’s house, fixing it up to suit his needs. While doing so, he starts to engage with the two children and then the mother, which doesn’t endear him to Jack (Sam Neill).

This is billed as a thriller, and there certainly is tension. Can he find a Tasmanian Tiger? And do we want him to? What happened to Sally’s husband? Is Jack hiding something? Does Bike (Sally’s son who doesn’t speak) know something? The film doesn’t quite have the sophisticated moral and emotional complexity of Animal Kingdom. It is more a film of archetypes: the hunter who becomes the hunted, the silent child who knows something, the withdrawn grieving wife, and so on. The tension is enhanced by the remote, forbidding landscape, and the cinematography used to convey it. The colours are cold blues and greens, the lighting dark. There is also the sense of menace suggested first by the loggers but then by something less definite, more mysterious. Is it animal or human?

This is a difficult film to review. I enjoyed the movie, but had some reservations. The performances are excellent, particularly the taciturn but expressive Dafoe, and the two children. The pacing is slow, and yet it’s not too long. The cinematography is captivating overall, though I didn’t always like the unsubtle way parts of a scene would move in and out of focus. The soundtrack – the natural sounds in the bush, and Martin’s classics set against Sally’s Springsteen in the domestic scenes – is effective. The plot is perhaps its main problem. The initial set-up – that of expecting to find an extinct animal – needs a major suspension of disbelief, which was not a problem on its own, but the plot is then so tightly managed it was a little difficult in the end to know exactly who had been implicated in what. And this leads, I think, to a confusion of themes.  The logger-environmentalist conflict is introduced but never really developed. Was it there for necessary background*, or for its red herring purposes? There’s a bevy of themes concerning nature and extinct animals versus man, science and corporate greed. These are all touched upon and developed to some degree, but not as strongly as they could be. The overriding theme though is probably Martin’s emotional journey – from an isolated, self-contained man at the beginning to … well, I don’t want to give away the plot, but his character’s development was, though somewhat predictable in that archetypal way, nicely and movingly done.

Having seen the film, I’d rather like to read the book – to see how I would interpret the characters, plot and themes. In the meantime, I would recommend the film … it may not be perfect but it has plenty to recommend it and is well worth the price of a ticket.

* For more on why this could be so, see my review of Into the woods.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 2:28 am

    Well you know, of course, that I will want to see this.

    • October 10, 2011 8:38 am

      I do … and I’ll be interested in your perspective. Have you read the book?

      (BTW Bought Max Barry’s Company for the spouse … and, you never know, I might find time to read it too.)

      • October 10, 2011 3:46 pm

        No I haven’t read the book. Took a look at the Amazon reviews and they were a mixed bag.

        I hope Company gives you some laughs. If you want to contact Max for an interview, you can go through his blog. Just make sure you put the word ‘duck’ in the content line.

        • October 10, 2011 4:23 pm

          Yes, I checked out some reviews too and it seemed that some of my concerns about the film may also be in the novel. I really should try to read it. (I like to read novels before movies if I can, but I don’t have hard and fast rules about this.)

          As for Max Barry … you have me intrigued, but I’ll try to remember.

  2. October 10, 2011 6:46 am

    I want to see this too, but despair that it will never come to small town Australia. It’s certainly not on here at the moment. I was surprised at you not having heard of the book, but having just googled it, I totally can’t believe that it came out in 1999! I haven’t read it either, but could have sworn that it came out 3 or 4 years ago.

    • October 10, 2011 8:41 am

      Yes, I’m a little surprised too. But in 1999 I was ferrying kids hither and thither, heavily involved in the School Board, etc. I was clearly not conscious of what was going on in the wider literary world beyond my reading groups.

    • October 10, 2011 3:50 pm

      Films that come to my town are required to have one of the following:
      A) something Disney
      B) a man who loses his virginity
      c) a chainsaw

      I know if I want to see this, it’ll be a rental.

      • October 10, 2011 4:24 pm

        Sounds like you suffer from Louise’s problem … and my friend in Orange County, Ca. We are lucky here to have some good movie outlets – that are also easy to get to.

  3. October 10, 2011 2:03 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this book before either but I did see Margaret and David review it on At the Movies and they both loved it. The clips they showed made it seem like it might be a bit too slow for me to really enjoy it, but I am happy to give it a go. The scenery certainly looked beautiful in the clips.

    • October 10, 2011 4:27 pm

      It is a slow movie … but I didn’t (don’t usually) mind that. Dafoe is great to watch going about his business, the scenery is fascinating (if not always beautiful – it has a mythic look at times, an almost malevolent look at others), so even though the plot doesn’t move at a fast pace it keeps your interest (I think!).

  4. October 10, 2011 3:00 pm

    I sometimes find it hard to take Willem Defoe seriously post-Spiderman, but I know he truly is a good actor…

  5. October 10, 2011 7:30 pm

    Louise & Guy, you need to join QuikFlix (the substitute for Big Pond Movies when they closed down their movie rental scheme). My problem is not that the good movies aren’t screened, it’s the timing: always during term when I’m too busy or too tired to get there, and then during the school holidays the cinemas are full of kiddie-pix.
    But now when I miss out on something, I just add it to my Q at Quikflix and eventually it is posted to my very front door!
    (Actually I have two free tickets to The Hunter, but they’re only valid MOndayu-to-Friday so they may never get used…

    • October 10, 2011 7:44 pm

      Thanks for that Lisa … could work for Louise, but Guy is in the US isn’t he, or can you subscribe to it from anywhere? The US has Netflix I think, which presumably provides Australian movies (eventually)? Our neighbours use Quikflix (or something like it) and see some great stuff. I still have a backlog of TBV movies, next to the TBR books!

      You’re right about school holidays and not so great movies! We groan when the school holidays come around because the movie screens are almost totally hi-jacked aren’t they?

      • October 11, 2011 3:10 am

        Netflix provides Australian movies, but the availability of the films on the site, Australian or not, seems to depend on licensing wranglement going on behind the scenes — some films can be streamed, some are only available on DVD (you send for them, I think; I’ve never done it) and sometimes you see a picture of the poster and they tell you Sorry But No. They’ve got The Silver Brumby, Breaker Morant, The Year My Voice Broke, Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth, and others — something called Little Sparrows (“Terrific! Mesmerizing!” explains the poster) — something else called Noise — MacLeod’s Daughters, if I want to watch that — various variousnesses. You can watch Two Hands but not Animal Kingdom. But the same goes for films by Guy Maddin (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is available for streaming but not Careful) or films with David Wenham in them (you can stream Better Than Sex but not Van Helsing).

        A US distributor has picked up the rights for The Hunter. I’m not sure when or where it’s going to be released over here. Story be damned, Defoe be damned; I want to look at Tassie again.

        • October 11, 2011 8:24 pm

          And why not —- look at Tassie again. Sounds like licensing for movie distribution is just as frustrating as that for book distribution. (And why wouldn’t they grab every film with David Wenham!)

          BTW If Noise is the movie I think it is, it’s well worth watching.

    • October 11, 2011 3:41 pm

      Lisa: I have netflix here & really appreciate the choices. But even with 1 zillion films, they still don’t always carry the ones I want to see. If they’re not released in N. America, I have to rely on my trusty all-region player.

      • October 11, 2011 6:21 pm

        I’m always nervous about sending Aussie DVDs to friends in the US cos I don’t know whether they have an all-region player. So many DVDs are produced just for our region and so I don’t send those. Another bit of licensing silliness.

  6. October 11, 2011 3:22 am

    I might have to see this just for the views of the scenery. Will be interested to hear your thoughts on the book in comparison when you get to it.

    • October 11, 2011 9:06 am

      You will … though it is filmed from a very specific angle to show the mystery, to feed the “thriller” mood, than to show its beauty but it would certainly give you a sense. As for the book, I just have to find time to read it.

  7. October 12, 2011 2:45 am

    Re. Noise.

    It’s something to do with a train and a mystery and it’s set in Sunshine. That much I can glean from the discussions. Several people say it confused them. Does that sound like the same film?

    • October 12, 2011 8:19 am

      Yep, and a young policeman with tinnitis. The “noise” motif is beautifully done. Can’t remember the exact place but suburban Melbourne if I remember correctly. Clever film – but it garnered mixed reviews.

  8. October 13, 2011 3:16 am

    Thanks for such a thorough and in-depth review, wg. I remember Frances O’Connor from Mansfield Park, she was really good. And as you said, “a film of archetypes”, just this phrase already sends me to think of it being sure intriguing and deeper than it looks. But I’m afraid, again, this will be the kind of excellent art films that we won’t get to see in our city.

    • October 13, 2011 8:55 am

      Thanks Arti. She’s a gorgeous actress isn’t she … I loved her in that Mansfield Park version (though many didn’t like the version did they?). There is some depth to it … I could have talked also about the metaphorical aspects of the hunt for such a legendary creature, the whole symbolism of the wilderness and man’s behaviour/humanity though I’m not sure the filmmakers drew that out as well as they could have which is why I decided not to dwell on it. What a shame you don’t get to see such films.

  9. October 24, 2011 5:08 pm

    Thanks for great review. We saw this movie at Manuka about 3 weeks ago and I loved it – evidently more than you did. The Tassie wilderness is so beautifully filmed, the acting and pacing were subtle and fine by me and the tension cleverly built up I thought. I quite liked the cross-currents and misperceptions caused by the locals seeing visitors in such a black and white way, and I had to laugh at the end as I waited all the way through the movie for one falsely laid trail to play out. I had worried that it would be corny and predictable. It really wasn’t.

    • October 24, 2011 7:09 pm

      Thanks bushmaid … we did enjoy watching it. And I did like the acting, pacing and sound track. It was really the plot and theme development that I found lacking a little … and the, to me, overuse of soft focus. The ending was a little corny I think, but not unacceptably so and not overdone. A film I’d certainly recommend.

  10. Ian permalink
    April 19, 2013 11:26 am

    Here’s a comment going back a long way. We saw the movie on DVD last night and thought that it was terrible! Which is the same as my reading of the book when it came out in the 90s. I couldn’t then understand why it had such good reviews. As you say in the review the plot is not resolved at all so we were left wondering what the film was really about. We found it very unconvincing and the acting unconvincing too. That Martin David could spend 12 days at a time in the bush with such a small pack which must have been taken up mostly with his collapsible gun and steel animal traps (where was there room for food, sleeping bag, clothing, etc) was completely unrealistic. The book, as I remember it, was also very poorly plotted and Julia Leigh’s evocation of the Tasmanian landscape betrayed her immediately as someone who dod not know it at all. I remember that Richard Flanagan tore strips off it for this aspect and bemoaned writers using Tasmania as a backdrop when they do not know the landscape well at all. As you can see – we (Oscar, Helen and myself) were not satisfied and wouldn’t recommend it!

    • April 19, 2013 2:35 pm

      Thanks for commenting Ian … I didn’t think it was that bad but I did as you could tell felt it was lacking. There is always a tension between reality/realism and fiction I think that can make a film like this tricky. Hello to Helen and Oscar!

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