If you look at Willem Dafoe’s filmography it makes for pretty fascinating reading. For every Antichrist, Wild At Heart and eXistenZ, there’s a Spider-Man, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Body of Evidence. His is a career that has encompassed a wide range of films; small, award-worthy, weird, big-budget and dross. But it also means he’s starred in more interesting films than you probably realise or even remember, and has worked with an impressive array of directors. He’s a fantastic character actor who rarely gets to play the lead, which is one reason why The Hunter seemed an exciting prospect.
Based on a novel by Julia Leigh (who also wrote and directed last year’s slightly strange Sleeping Beauty), the titular hunter, played by Dafoe, is a man for hire whose specific skills are requested by the oblique Red Leaf corporation. They send him to Tasmania to find, kill and extract certain parts of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger, which local rumours have suggested may still exist. His cover story of university research leaves him based in a house with Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two kids, who seem lost without their husband/father who vanished in the wilderness months earlier, whilst the local community, including Sam Neill’s Jack, resent outsiders and the ecological activists trying to put a stop to their livelihood as loggers.
What was most unexpected is that The Hunter pulls a few different threads into the story. I was expecting the film to purely focus on tracking and stalking of prey in the wilds, with a wordlessness akin to Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing. This would’ve been the easy way to go and at first it seems like this will be so, except the film spends more time on the couple of days in-between each of the hunter's twelve-day hunting cycles, and the interactions and relationships that take place here. That’s not to say we don’t see plenty of the isolated methodological monotony of looking for something that might not exist, but by gently involving Lucy and in particular her kids when he returns to regroup, it brings a level of humanity to a potentially cold story.
Then there’s the ecological aspect. Although the film calls for the lead to hunt a creature that may have already traversed the line of extinction, there doesn't seem to be much judgement on this, and we also see a balanced side to the logging aspect of the story. The environmental protestors have a sound argument and portray a certain amount of idealism, but for this community what else is there for its residents if the logging stops? There is no other work, so what are they supposed to do? It’s easy to sympathise with both sides, making the natural hostility when this new outsider enters understandable. Where his cover story forces him to be detrimentally labelled a “greenie” by the locals, ironically they may have actually shown him some respect if he could’ve told them why he was really there. Inevitably this forces him onto a specific side.
Dafoe is excellent. He starts out as a man who has his own clearly defined rules and routines and a slightly mechanical nature, but it doesn’t take much to crack this veneer. No back story is given, but we don’t need one. We just see a man who has distanced and hidden himself from humanity, slowly being pulled back towards it, for better or worse. He’s thoroughly engaging. The rest of the cast do a decent job and there is something charming about the two kids, fortunately in a way that avoids any standard Hollywood-ised schmaltz.
I have to say I was pretty impressed by The Hunter. It certainly helped that it didn’t go down the more conventional route that I expected for a film of this nature, but it’s a well balanced story and solidly directed. The setting / location worked strongly in its favour too, offering something lusher than we’re used to seeing when it comes to Australian-set films, and there was definitely a sense of isolation in this little microcosm. The location also allowed for decent cinematography and beautiful shots of the stunning scenery. But at the end of the day it’s Dafoe’s fantastic performance that anchors the film, giving a quietly believable depth and humanity to a potentially cold and unlikeable character. Why we don’t see Dafoe in more lead roles I don’t know.