The Hunter is slow, inconsistent, and annoyingly unclear about what its intentions are. It is, on the one hand, a wilderness thriller about the search for an elusive animal; the search is so competitive that people are willing to kill for it. On the other hand, it’s a soppy relationship drama founded on nothing made apparent to the audience, apart from the convenience of the right characters being in the right place at the right time. Thirdly, it’s a vague, unrewarding examination of the conflict between the industry and environmentalism, proponents of the former desperate to keep their jobs simply because it’s the only way to keep the local economy going. Finally, it’s an impenetrable character study, the subject a man whose past is a mystery and whose current actions stem from an inexplicable change in perspective.
Adapted from the novel by Julia Leigh, it tells the story of a hunter named Martin (Willem Dafoe), who’s discretely hired by a biotech company to infiltrate the wilderness of Tasmania and track down the Tasmanian Tiger, an animal that by most accounts was considered to have gone extinct nearly eighty years ago. The middleman wants Martin to follow up on two reported sightings, which he claims are from reliable sources. His instructions are to gather organ, blood, and tissue samples and then immediately report back. He’s warned that, although this information has been kept hidden, word always has a way of spreading. He has a few months at most, perhaps even less, before other biotech companies get wind of it. In fact, they may have already gotten wind of it. Martin needs to watch his back.
Although repeatedly referred to as a scientist, Martin has the skills and demeanor of a rugged survivalist and an assassin. In virtually all wilderness scenes, we him living off the land, shooting animals for food and for bait, and setting up small bear traps and covering them with foliage. He even constructs his own crude traps using only twigs and leaves. He has a miniature arsenal at his disposal, along with a case full of plastic bags and test tubes. Initially sealed off and selective in when he speaks, his heart gradually melts when he’s introduced to the family of a local scientist who went missing months earlier. The mother, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), is at first only seen in bed, numb on medications; Martin helps get her off of them, and when he returns after yet another excursion, it’s as if she had never taken a pill in her life. I will not say that they fall in love, but if given half a chance, this story almost certainly would have gone in that direction.
Martin also befriends Lucy’s two children, who essentially fend for themselves in their rustic home – or, more accurately, a hippie compound with poor plumbing, electricity from a shoddy generator, and Christmas lights and speakers hanging from the trees. The precocious daughter, nicknamed Sass (Morgana Davies), is outgoing and talkative. The son, nicknamed Bike (Finn Woodlock), doesn’t say a word. He does, however, express himself through his childish drawings. And wouldn’t you know, one of his pictures provides Martin with a clue as to the location of the Tiger. Martin and Bike form an especially tight bond, although for the life of me, I’m not sure why. Nothing about Martin suggests he would ever consider being a father figure, let alone actually become one.
Prior to Martin’s arrival, Lucy and her kids are looked after by a man named Jack (Sam Neill), who’s hired to be Martin’s guide through the wilderness. Martin will accept his help, but only to a point; once they reach a cliff overlooking a valley of dense forest, he insists on continuing alone. Jack’s role is not made explicitly clear, although it’s strongly suggested that he has ties to both the evil biotech company and the angry loggers. The latter is an especially ill-fitting subplot, as it doesn’t seem to coincide with either the search for the Tiger or Martin’s growing affection for Lucy and her family. There are a group of men who are convinced Martin is yet another environmental activist sent to take their jobs away. At one point, they drive up to Lucy’s house and fire a warning shot.
The last major action sequence is rather conventional, as it involves the arrival of another biotech operative with his own agenda. Not long after, it becomes a matter of whether or not Martin will find the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger, and no, I will not spoil this for you. I will say that it would have been better had the film ended on that note. But the filmmakers take it one step further and go for an emotional climax, one that comes from nothing the audience can see. If you’ve read my reviews, you know that I don’t have a problem with sentiment. But in this particular story, it feels stylistically out of place. I won’t go so far as to say that The Hunter is a bad film, but it certainly is misguided. It needed a better grasp on character, a more consistent tone, and a less meandering plot.
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