out of Five
Running time: 102
Quietly gripping, atmospheric and beautifully shot drama with a terrific central performance from Willem Dafoe, an effectively sparse script and some stunning location work.
What's it all about?
Directed by Daniel Nettheim, The Hunter is based on the novel by Julia Leigh (Sleeping Beauty) and stars Willem Dafoe as Martin David, a skilled mercenary who's hired by a mysterious biotech company to travel to Tasmania in search of the last remaining Tasmanian tiger. Martin's cover story requires him to stay in an isolated country home where depressed mother Lucy (Frances O'Connor) and her two young children (Morgana Davies as Sass and Finn Woodlock as Bike) are still waiting for news of her missing zoologist husband.
With Lucy almost comatose with depression, Martin finds himself bonding with the children, against his better instincts. Meanwhile, there are rumblings in the nearby town where Martin is regarded as a “greenie” (e.g. an interfering eco-warrior type) and he remains suspicious of his self-imposed guide Jack (Sam Neill).
Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast as Martin – he's not exactly known for playing easily likeable characters and there's an awkwardness to his responses to the children's friendly overtures that works well and culminates in one of the film's best scenes. There's also terrific support from both Morgana Davies (who did some similar scene-stealing in The Tree) and newcomer Finn Woodlock, while O'Connor sparks interesting chemistry with Dafoe and Neill is reliably solid as Jack.
The effectively sparse script throws up some intriguing conflicts, such as the fact that various save-the-planet proposals threaten to put an entire community of people out of work. Similarly, Nettheim effectively builds tension by never having Martin talk about his work, so we're constantly unsure as to his true motives and intentions and we're forced to scrutinise his actions and expressions to see whether his experiences with the family are affecting him in any way.
In addition, the film is beautifully shot throughout, with Nettheim and cinematographer Robert Humphreys making use of some spectacular scenery and some genuinely jaw-dropping locations – indeed, there's a quality to the landscape that's almost fairytale-like and one suspects the actual location will be permanently on call for Enchanted Forest duty from now on.
In fact, the only element that slightly lets the film down is an ill-advised CGI moment towards the end, though the alternative would have been somewhat tricky to achieve.
The Hunter is an engaging, slow-burning drama/thriller with a strong sense of atmosphere, an intriguing script and a terrific central performance from Willem Dafoe. Recommended.