The Hunter - movie reviewAfter the beloved Australian urban myth of the "big black cat" was so curiously underused in Red Hill (they could have at least had someone morph into a panther a la Nastassja Kinski in Cat People), I had grave fears for the thylacine, now relegated to the status of cryptid, in Daniel Nettheim's adaptation of Julia Leigh's The Hunter.
I needn't have worried: our native fauna's saddest casualty, and the mystery surrounding its rumoured survival, is the bruised heart of The Hunter. The film built around that heart has moments of both cliche and brilliance, ending up somewhere in the middle, but bewitching nevertheless.
Martin (Willem Dafoe), a naturalist cum mercenary, is hired by European biotech company RedLeaf to travel to the Tasmanian wilderness to track down the - alleged - sole surviving thylacine. RedLeaf have a number of confirmed sightings, so they pack Martin off to the Apple Isle with a high-powered rifle and a case full of DNA-sampling equipment.
He arrives and makes his way to base camp, which is a spare room in the ramshackle home of Lucy (Frances O'Connor), rendered effectively comatose by the twin palls of mourning and over-medication, and her two children Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock), who run wild around the property.
The house is without power or hot water, because the generator is broken and their dad, Jarrah (Marc Watson-Paul, seen only in photographs), is still up in the mountains. It soon becomes clear that while the kids think he's still out there somewhere, the reality is what has sent Lucy into a cocoon of grief.
Martin puts his gear together and sets off, led by Jack (Sam Neill), a local farmer and friend of Lucy's. En route to the wilderness, they meet a brace of anti-logging protesters, whose gentle nature is in direct contrast with the violent oafishness of the men working for the logging companies that Martin earlier encountered in a local bar.
He sets off alone, constructing snares from string and shrubbery as well as laying steel traps: it's clear that, even if there is a thylacine out there, RedLeaf don't plan for Martin to bring it home alive.
His first stint in the landscape is an exercise in almost monastic dedication to his work: he smokes his clothes to remove all trace of civilised scents, guts a wallaby to cut up bait for his traps. And yet, Martin is also a very human presence in this wilderness: one night he is startled by the nightmarish calls of the devils (which memorably put the frighteners all over another work of Tasmanian existentialism, Roger Scholes' The Tale Of Ruby Rose).
Each time he returns from the mountain to refuel and regroup, Sass and the near-mute Bike push themselves ever closer to Martin's comfort zone. He draws a bath, they hop in; "Dad says we shouldn't waste the hot water," Sass says, matter-of-factly. Martin is horrified.
Eventually, Lucy emerges from her twilight zone, and she, too, becomes captivated by Martin. He's mysterious yet capable, the sort of man who plays Yvonne Kenny's Baïlèro on his iPod dock while taking a bath; he fixes the generator, and life begins to return to the household.
With each trip back to the wilderness, his inner conflict deepens: finish the mission? Find Jarrah? Spend more time with his new-found, makeshift family? And is he, echoing the paranoia that coloured Jarrah's similar mission, being followed?
At times, it feels like there are two films at play throughout the The Hunter, and one is far more interesting than the other. The ongoing stoush between the loggers and the greenies is perfunctory; peppered with stereotypes (the loggers are boorish bogans who drink beer all day, while the greenies are sensitive types who do fire-twirling), it's also a nearly pointless diversion in the greater scheme of the narrative.
The other side of the film, Martin's existential journey through the wilderness and in and out of Lucy's household, is far more interesting. In fact, had the film consisted of little more than Martin, alone in the wilderness, it would have worked better.
There is an elegiac quality to The Hunter that makes it intoxicating in spite of its faults, however. It's helped immensely by Dafoe's performance as the distant but ultimately soulful mercenary, as well as O'Connor's heartbroken hippie mum. The children are terrific, also; Morgana Davies, so captivating in The Tree, gives Sass a heartbreaking optimism.
The production design, by Steven Jones-Evans, is lived-in and real, while the breathtaking Central Plateau and Derwent Bridge give New Zealand's storied landscapes a run for their money in terms of cinematic beauty.
But as it built towards its conclusion - a denouement that lays on almost operatic amounts of sorrow - I kept thinking of all the unnecessary additions to the story that had cluttered the film. In the end I couldn't help but wish that The Hunter had kept things even more elemental and simply pitted man against nature, leaving everything else behind at base camp.
- three stars
The Hunter opens in cinemas on Thursday 6th October.
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