Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, The Hunter is the latest film from Magnolia Pictures stars Willem Dafoe as a scientist working for a shady bio-tech company called Red Leaf, who is sent to Tasmania to hunt down what is believed to be the last Tasmanian tiger, a carnivorous marsupial that is much bigger and more vicious than the famed Tasmanian devil. The last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in the 1930’s, all Martin David (Willem Defoe) has to go on is rumor an hearsay. In the years since the last known Tasmanian tiger was taken into captivity, locals tell stories of sightings of the mysterious creature, but no one has ever been able to come up with any evidence to support their claims.
It is never fully explained who Martin David is, or where he comes from. Observing his actions leads us to believe he was a former member of some special operations force, but it is not germane to the story to know who he is, but we get a clear picture of the kind of man he is. Upon his arrival in Tasmania, he is put up as a boarder in the room of a local family that consists of Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two children Bike and Sass. Bike and Sass run wild while their mother sleeps the day away, depressed at the thought of her missing husband, who went missing while looking for the famed last Tasmanian tiger months before. She accepts that he is not coming back, but the children have faith that he will be home soon.
As Martin begins his work, he realizes that Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), who has been watching over the family since their patriarch’s disappearance, might not have their best intentions at heart. Martin is able to fix their generator, providing them with power for the house, and a connection to the outside world. When Martin tries to chat up the locals at the pub, he is met with hostility, and told that everyone knows why he’s there.
He tells everyone he is a scientist working on research of Tasmanian Devils, while reporting in to Red Leaf on his progress. As he gets closer to the Tasmanian tiger, he also gets closer to the Armstrong family, getting Lucy out of her drugged stupor, and making sure she takes care of her children. Meanwhile, the logging company that is working in the woods Martin hunts in have been attempting to scare him off, when a bill passes that stops them from working, ordering a temporary protection to the forest. Lucy celebrates with friends, being one of the co-authors of the bill before her husband went missing. Martin realizes there is more at stake than just his finding the Tasmanian tiger, if he does find it, there will be an uproar, meanwhile, if he doesn’t find it, he knows what will happen to him.
Eventually, he must make a decision when he gets closer to finding the elusive animal, and Red Leaf isn’t happy with his progress. Martin makes his choices, and is left to deal with the consequences, confronting Jack Mindy about what happened. I’ve seen more than a few reviews where people weren’t happy with the turn the film took in the final few minutes, but I think it’s the story that was being told the entire time. Tasmania is a beautiful island, and the cinematography by Robert Humphreys captures it in a unique, profound way, complimenting the natural beauty at every turn.
Dafoe does very well playing the mysterious Martin, as I wrote before, we never really know who he is, or where he comes from, but we learn a lot about his character through his actions in the film. Sam Neill plays an interesting character, constantly conflicted, well meaning for the most part, but willing to bargain in ways that most morally sound people wouldn’t. Frances O’Connor plays the downtrodden mother well, she has multiple layers of hurt to work through, and over the course of the film, we learn a lot about her. The screenplay is strong, piecing together key moments throughout the runtime, even though most of the film has a lackadaisical pace, it never gets boring, and these key moments shine through. Many probably won’t click with the slow, steady pace of the film, but nature lovers, and hunters especially, will be impressed with the locations, the photography, and the moral adherence to the hunter’s code that permeates the story. Fans of Terrence Malick will probably click the with the storytelling and photography, and while the story is probably not for everyone, it says interesting things about human society, and big business, without being heavy-handed on any subject. A well-crafted film through and through, with dynamic performances from some great veteran actors. The cinematography will be “look at my new TV!” worthy when the Blu-Ray hits. In the meantime, the 1080 VOD rental is great to look at, and I’m sure it will look great on digital projection when it hits a limited theatrical release next month. Recommended for those that enjoy thinking while watching a movie.