The Tasmanian Tiger or thylacine is believed extinct, the last known specimen having died in captivity in 1936. However, there have since been unconfirmed sightings of the animal in the wild. Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a large biotech firm to bring back evidence: fur, DNA samples, organs. Posing as a university researcher, Martin lodges with Lucy (Frances O'Connor) and her two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woolcock). Martin finds himself in the middle of a dispute between the local logging industry and “greenie” activists, one of whom, Lucy's husband disappeared several months ago. In his search for the elusive thylacine, Martin finds himself up against some powerful interests...
The Hunter is based on a novel by Julia Leigh, who made her debut as a writer/director with last year's Sleeping Beauty. The present film was written by Alice Addison (Wain Fimeri and Daniel Nettheim are credited for an “original adaptation”) and is directed by Daniel Nettheim. Martin is the latest of a long line of professional men portrayed in films, a lineage that goes back through the work of Michael Mann and Walter Hill and before them to Jean-Pierre Melville – some of the most compelling sequences show him at work in the wilderness without a word of dialogue. Like many previous film professionals, Martin is closed in, dedicated to his work, a man who becomes undone by being reacquainted with his humanity. This happens by means of his relationship with Lucy and her children – who admittedly seem a little too unworldly and accept Martin a little too quickly. Dafoe's screen presence is not in doubt (particularly in the dialogue-free sequences mentioned above) and he's well supported by Sam Neill and Frances O'Connor who makes something from an underwritten and cliched part. Nettheim gets very natural performances out of the two children. This is Finn Woolcock's feature debut, but on the basis of this and The Tree, Morgana Davies is a name to watch out for. Robert Humphreys's Scope camerawork is impressive, as is the music score which is the joint work of Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira and Matteo Zingales. Out of fourteen nominations, the latter two won The Hunter its only AACTA (formerly Australian Film Institute) Awards.
The Hunter is a film that doesn't quite hang together as well as it should, and some may find the ending frustrating. But for much of the way it's an absorbing and frequently impressive, if slow-burning film. There has been a gap of eleven years between Nettheim's first feature (Angst, from 2000, not seen by me) and this one. Let's hope it's not too long before he makes a third.