Willem Dafoe is the eponymous hunter, sent to Tasmania to follow up on reported sightings of the last Tasmanian Tiger—a species of wolf believed to be extinct since the last known tiger died in captivity in 1936. Dafoe has been sent by a biotech company that wants extracts from the tiger's glands, and then wants it eliminated. When he arrives in Tasmanian he's met by a local guide (Sam Neill) and set up in lodging with Lucy (Frances O'Connor) living in a drug-addled haze since her husband, a zoologist, disappeared in the wilderness searching for that same tiger. She's got two kids, adept at looking after themselves—the younger of whom, a boy called Bike, doesn't speak. Dafoe of course keeps the nature of his hunt secret, but he's also landed in the middle of a dispute over protecting the forests from lexploitation, and is assumed to be another ecologist by the local loggers.
There is a lot to like in this quiet drama, not least the way director Daniel Nettheim and DP Robert Humphreys use the landscape to reflect the story—not only the struggles against the harsh territory, but also the isolation of the characters (particularly Dafoe's Hunter) and the mysteries of the tiger itself. As Dafoe gets drawn closer and closer to the family, he becomes suspicious of the husband's disappearance, and of his own mission, and eventually he too will become hunted, the metaphor of a 'last of his species' kind of extinction never far from our minds.
It's a slow burning film, which apparently reflects the pace and mood of its source novel, by Australian Julia Leigh, which won the Betty Trask award. It was originally adapted by Nettheim and Wain Fimeri before Alice Addison wrote the screenplay. Apparently the result is somewhat different from the book, which I haven't read, so I can't say whether the film is more tragic or less so. But sometimes the film gets trapped in a sort of nether-zone between wilderness family drama and international conspiracy thriller, with the former generally winning out, but only nudging along.
There's a lot of suspense, some ambiguity, and the opportunity for double-cross; though Neill's presence is virtually a give-away from the start. It's odd the way internet coverage can be good and phone coverage bad at the same time, and whole sub-plot with unfriendly locals doesn't go very far. But it's biggest flaw is that when the suspense is finally broken, it happens off-stage, and that dilutes its impact. It does build to another climax, and then a touching coda that seems completely impractical, but I can't an audience by that point worrying about the details. O'Connor's performance is first rate, holding in emotions almost as strongly as Dafoe. She reminds me of a young Barbara Hershey (and in this film, the Barbara Seagull version might be closer), but her part, if anything is understated; her character is never able to fully engage with Dafoe's, which is part of the point, but which ought to be, in contrast with her husband, driving the film. The young actors, . Finn Woodlock as Bike and Morgana Davies as his sister Cass are both very good.
Dafoe and the landscape are the real stars, however, and both are excellent. But in the end I kept feeling like I was watching a less-prententious but almost as self-consciously arty revisiting of The Piano, with the mother in a daze and the child not speaking, and the man who's gone native replaced with the man who learns to go native. And whether this was simply an instinctive reaction by the adapters, or something lodging in the novel. Either way, this element of familiarity, this suggestion that muteness may be the only way to avoid adapting to the landscape, this sense that maybe the it's trying too hard to be sensitive, is the only thing that stopped my liking this likeable film even more.
The Hunter opens in London today