The Hunter. Daniel Nettheim. Porchlight Films, 2011
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.