Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill are on great form in this tiger-hunting, eco-detective thriller.
While hinting at but ultimately eschewing the broadly drawn thrills that typified Lee Tamahori’s 1997 film, The Edge, and the existential undertones that lifted last year’s man-versus-wolves survival yarn The Grey out of its generic trappings, Australian TV director Daniel Nettheim’s unfocussed second feature struggles to find a balance between its busy thematic concerns, over-egged human drama and the elegant simplicity of its narrative.
The beasts at the heart of those previously mentioned films are of a determinedly predatory nature, while the elusive Tasmanian tiger central to Willem Dafoe’s mission in The Hunter remains something of a benign MacGuffin.
It’s a supposedly extinct, locally mythologised creature sought after by competing biotech firms for unique toxins that induce paralysis in its prey. As Dafoe is sent to track what is perhaps the last remaining example of the species, one does wonder how difficult it may ultimately prove to find, given how laden the poor creature is with each and every one of the human characters’ metaphorical baggage.
Dafoe clearly sees echoes of himself in the tiger’s plight ("I wonder if she’s the last one? Just hunting and killing, waiting to die"), while the young family to whom he slowly begins to form a patriarchal attachment invest themselves in his quest to find their missing father.
The constant to-and-fro between Dafoe’s mission and that burgeoning relationship means The Hunter never has the opportunity to fully explore either side with any true sense of depth. The scenes with the family lose themselves to an unexpected sentimentality, given that the source novel was penned by Julia Leigh, director of 2011’s emotionally implacable Sleeping Beauty.
The Tasmanian landscape is stunningly evoked in Robert Humphreys’ fog-hewn lensing, and our time spent alone with Dafoe in the wilderness is second perhaps only to that spent with local tracker Sam Neill, here on snarling form.
It’s just a shame that in lingering on the narrative’s socioeconomic and ecological context, and insistently pushing for emotional weight, The Hunter tries to say everything and ends up saying nothing.
From the producers of Animal Kingdom and, erm, the director of TV’s Dance Academy.
Dafoe and Neill are on great form in a tiger-hunting, eco-detective thriller that certainly looks the part.
Unfocussed and thematically overburdened. More could have been said with less.