Based off the 1999 novel by Julia Leigh, Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter is a thrilling tale of isolation, nature, and survival.
In the Australian film, Willem Dafoe plays Martin David, a solitary and antisocial mercenary. The movie opens with a scene showing him in a hotel room, alone and pensive. His elusive employer says to him in one of the first few scenes, “It must be nice to be you, and not need anybody.” Martin is employed by a mysterious man with a secret, dangerous job from a military biotech company called Red Leaf. The job is to look for an Australian animal known to be extinct, but rumored to have been seen twice in the past year: the Tasmanian Tiger. Martin must return with hair samples, DNA samples, and the organs of the animal. Why this material is needed, we are not told.
Martin arrives in a rural logging town in Australia, a town dense with forests in the midst of destruction. The residents are blue-collar logging Aussies who immediately tell our protagonist that he is not welcome. As an obvious foreigner, he cannot get a room, and so Martin must stay with an endearing and broken family in their house. There are two dirty but kindhearted children, a young, talkative girl and a seemingly mute boy, whose father has been missing for a year, disappearing into the woods to look for the Tasmanian Tiger himself, only to never return. The mother Lucy (Frances O'Connor) is in a state of disarray, taking constant doses of opiates to keep her in a perpetual state of unconsciousness. The daughter gives Martin a photograph of their patriarch and asks him to find her father.
Much of the movie consists of Martin wandering alone in the forest, attempting to find and trap the tiger. For these scenes, there is rarely any dialogue at all. Instead, we see rugged survivalist-style Dafoe in dense forests, hunting kangaroos and setting up traps with sticks and twine.
The nature scenes work well — while one would think that watching endless pacing through the woods and fruitless animal trapping would get boring quickly, these scenes move along fluidly. The nature shots are interesting enough if not for the sheer beauty of the diverse ecology. The disconnect between Martin and the others, paired with the solitude and danger he is exposed to while hunting in the wild, work together with a powerful score that helps The Hunter maintain a mysterious tone. And the film draws an interesting parallel between Dafoe’s isolation and the tiger he seeks, which is believed to be the last one in existence.
The Hunter is a unique study of the flip-flopping idea of the hunter and hunted, wrought with the psychological complexities that accompany the introverted isolationist. This helps it to appeal a wider audience, from the Planet Earth and Man vs. Wild types to psychological thriller advocates, and mystery buffs alike. The storyline has a series of extreme, unexpected twists, and Willem Dafoe delivers another spectacular performance. The characters are believable and dynamic, richly developed, and intertwined by this species that tears the entire community apart. As their worlds begin to untangle, you feel sympathy for each character in their own respective way, and are left wondering who will survive.