Review: The Hunter
PLOT: A mysterious gun-for-hire's latest assignment brings him to the island of Tasmania with a most unusual target in mind: the Tasmanian Tiger, a species thought to be all-but-extinct.
REVIEW: Daniel Nettheim's THE HUNTER is a very unique kind of thriller. In fact, it may not even be accurate to classify it as such. It's closer to a character drama, concerning a man who discovers something about himself, while a traditional thriller builds gradually around him. It's a movie that won't necessarily connect with anyone who's after an action-heavy romp in the wilderness (THE GREY, this isn't); it's a quietly suspenseful experience with a somber, uneasy tone.
Our main character is Martin (Willem Dafoe), who we gather swiftly is a hitman/assassin type. Alone in the world and all business, Martin seemingly lives just for his work. Meeting his middleman in Paris, Martin learns a biotech company called Red Leaf wants him for an unorthodox job: track down the Tasmanian Tiger, an animal that is only talked about but never seen, shoot it, and bring it in. The company is positive that it exists somewhere in the fields and hills of Tasmania and want it, we can assume, for less than humane purposes.
Martin takes the job, and takes it seriously. He heads out to the Australian island and, thanks to a shady go-between named Jack (Sam Neill), finds himself staying with a lonely, borderline catatonic woman, Lucy (Frances O'Connor), and her two children (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock) because their house is in close proximity to Martin's target area. At first, Martin's presence is almost unnoticed by the woman, but the children take to him with a quickness, their need for a father figure overwhelming as their dad has been missing for over a year. Martin, who is intent on the task at hand, of course tries to distance himself from becoming emotionally attached to these people, even as his cool exterior gradually melts.
The bulk of Nettheim's film involves either Martin's deliberate hunt in the wilderness, a very placid series of sequences, where the only sounds come from birds and the wind, and his time in the cottage with his make-shift new family. We learn that Martin is not a hard man, but a guarded one. And when it soon becomes obvious that the biotech company he's working for is shadier than initially imagined - perhaps keeping a closer eye on him and his hosts than he's comfortable with - Martin's protective side is not reluctant to come out.
Dafoe is, as ever, a captivating screen presence, and once again he elevates material that might not be as engaging without such a dynamic actor taking the lead. Martin is indeed a compelling figure, but so much of what he's feeling and thinking is left unspoken – a lesser actor would settle for making him just a strong, silent type. Dafoe, however, brings out Martin's complexities. He's one of those rare expressive actors that can say so much without saying anything at all.
The supporting cast, while small, is also populated with strong performers. Frances O'Connor gives Lucy a palpable wounded sadness early on, and brightens with real warmth as the character unfurls and lets herself be happy. Neill plays Jack with a cynical smirk; a man just as mysterious as Martin, with unclear motives and a hint of danger, he's a somewhat creepy presence in the film. Neill can perform “sly” like no other. Finally, the two kids Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock, are pitch perfect. It's not always easy for young children to come across as completely genuine in a film like this, but they're actually kind of great.
THE HUNTER is a complex and fulfilling film, albeit one that works on you slowly. Its main attribute is the strong ensemble on display, which should certainly be appreciated by audiences of all types, but its unhurried pace and pensive atmosphere will be an acquired taste.
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