The Hunter is not an action film; it is a character study. Ostensibly, we are studying Martin and the decision he has to make.
The Hunter shares more than just a little DNA with Debra Granik’s 2010 film Winter’s Bone. In both, a somber, reserved protagonist navigates a stark and inhospitable environment trying to unravel a mystery. While Winter’s Bone is set in the cold and barren Ozarks of Missouri, The Hunter follows Martin David (Willem Dafoe) through the damp and rainy forests of Tasmania. Both Martin and Ree Dolly (the determined heroine of Bone) are more than just casually familiar with outdoor survival tactics, and both must perform horrible acts for the cause they know is right.
Unlike many films, we don’t get a lot of backstory about our main character and the anonymous company that hires him. Martin, a world-class hunter and mercenary, is paid to travel to the small island of Tasmania to hunt the last surviving Tasmanian Tiger so his employers can harvest its genetic material. Most locals believe that the tiger, which once flourished in the Tasmanian wilderness, died out decades ago and that any search would be in vain. (For Americans, it is akin to Sasquatch hunters, except that the Tasmanian Tiger actually existed at one time.)
Under the guise of a scientist studying the Tasmanian Devil, Martin sets up home base in a small town, lodging with a family that rents out one of its extra rooms to outdoorsmen. When he gets there, he is greeted by two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Jamie Timony). Their mother, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), has fallen into a deep depression since her husband disappeared almost a year ago. Sass, who speaks nonstop while her brother doesn’t speak at all, helps Martin get settled, her helpfulness making him more than a little uncomfortable.
Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a friend of the family and local tracker, helps guide Martin through the forest when he sets out on his journey, but soon Martin requests to be left alone. It’s clear Martin isn’t entirely convinced that the Tiger is still in existence, but he was paid for a job and he doesn’t rest until he knows without a doubt whether or not his search is in vain. That search, though, leads him into an extremely volatile local situation with dangerous and disastrous consequences he couldn’t possibly have seen coming.
The Hunter is directed by Daniel Nettheim, a veteran of the television world, but you wouldn’t know it. Nettheim handles his film, written by Alice Addison and Wain Fimeri from the novel by Julia Leigh, with the skill and patience of a director who has been making films for decades. Patience, in fact, is important not only for Nettheim, but also for the audience, as the plot moves at almost a glacial pace for the first three quarters of the film. We as the audience experience the waiting and not knowing that fills Martin and fuels his frustration with his employer, the locals, and the tiger. Despite its title, The Hunter is not an action film; it is a character study. Ostensibly, we are studying Martin and the decision he has to make. On a much larger scale, though, we are studying ourselves, since each viewer will inevitably have to ask themselves if they would make the same decisions as Martin.
Dafoe, who is one of the most entertaining and intriguing actors working today, gives another terrific performance. Martin is a very complex character with knowledge we can’t begin to imagine. The character’s personality and allegiance evolves throughout the film, and Dafoe’s incredible talent as an actor makes each transformation entirely believable. The Hunter wouldn’t be nearly as successful without Dafoe’s brilliant contribution.
While it is a very bleak and serious film, The Hunter is extremely engaging and never boring for even a moment. | Matthew Newlin