There is greatness within director Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter (available VOD now and in theaters April 6), but it’s not fully-realized greatness. Supported by beautiful camera work and an extraordinary performance by Willem Dafoe, the film has many solid elements working in its favor but holding it back is a narrative that falters in its focus.
Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, the movie stars Dafoe as Martin David, an American mercenary hired by a biotech company to travel to Tasmania and hunt down the rarest animal in the world: the Tasmanian tiger, a creature thought to be extinct. While he intends to spend most of his time in the wilderness setting traps and finding his target, his gets distracted by the family he’s living with, who is convinced that he is a scientist doing research on Tasmanian devils. As he grows closer to the mother (Frances O’Connor) and two children (Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock), his dangerous employers become more concerned about his lack of progress.
Dafoe has made a career from playing unhinged, unbalanced characters, but what’s most impressive about his turn in The Hunter is the way in which he’s able to go back and forth over the line dividing menacing and paternal. From the outset we know that Martin is a professional, and a highly-skilled and dangerous one, but as he spends more time with the family we see a softer side begin to emerge. The change progresses gently and is never alienating or out-of-character, but it is Dafoe who sells it and sells it wonderfully.
While the deliberate pacing does serve to help Martin’s transformation (at its core, The Hunter is very much a character study), the editing and some extraneous subplots cause the film to lag. While Martin’s extended time in the wilderness serves to explore the character as both a natural loner as well as an expert predator, repetitive sequences showing him driving to and from the outlands neither service the character nor the story. There is also a subplot that involves a conflict between environmentalists and local loggers, but other than the occasional threat thrown our protagonists way it doesn’t add much to either Martin’s mission or his relationship with the mother and children, rendering it vestigial. Fortunately the film’s narrative is largely focused on what really matters to the story, but when that focus is lost it’s a distraction.
Aesthetically The Hunter is a true stunner. While it would probably be hard to shoot an ugly film in such a lush landscape, Nettheim succeeds in dialing up the beauty. While out in the woods the director uses a great series of both wide shots – capturing the vastness and scope of the terrain – and intimate shots that fold Martin right into the environment. Proving his skill, however, the movie’s splendor isn’t limited to the main character’s time in nature, but also the main character’s time with his surrogate family. A scene later in the film where Martin takes part in a party with the family is particularly wonderful, accented with perfect lighting from strings of Christmas tree lights and a roaring fire.
It’s not hard to appreciate a movie like this due to its impressive cinematography and direction as well as a great turn by Willem Dafoe, but its flaws are hard to ignore. A tighter script and a more frugal editing process could have done the film a lot of good, but the end result is still notable and an entertaining piece of cinema.