What actor, working or otherwise, wouldn’t want Willem Dafoe‘s career? The man got his start in theatre and has for the past 30 years been able to perfectly balance big-budget studio films like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (that build the bank account) with scrappy indie projects like Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (that build, well, character, I suppose). At age 57, he still has one of the most interesting faces in the industry and has never lost his “street cred,” even after playing an eight-foot-tall, multi-armed alien in a movie that Disney is currently trying to quietly sweep under the rug. Dafoe is certainly a rare species in Hollywood, an artist who can excel and seem right at home in either a billion-dollar action movie or a chamber piece catered by the director’s mother.
How appropriate, then, that Dafoe has been teamed up with another one-of-a-kind creature: the Tasmanian Tiger, an animal previously thought extinct but now the target of a mysterious biotech company in director Daniel Nettheim’s terrific adventure drama, The Hunter. Dafoe plays the title role, Martin David, a crackshot mercenary hired to brave rural Australia’s lush Tasmanian forest and track down the beast whose DNA apparently contains elements that could be weaponized. Undercover as a researcher from “the University,” Martin rents a room from Lucy (Frances O’Connor), a woman who rarely leaves her bedroom as she mourns the recent disappearance of her husband, and, in-between his expeditions, befriends her two children, the precocious Sass (Morgana Davies) and the silent Bike (Finn Woodlock). Martin’s bonding with the family puts him at odds with a family friend who obviously has the hots for Lucy (Sam Neill) and gets him involved with the tug-of-war between Lucy’s environmental activist group and the local logging trade — and plunges him into the mystery of her husband’s disappearance, which is somehow linked to the elusive tiger.
More emotional (and definitely more of a tree-hugger) than its two spiritual predecessors, Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control and Anton Corbijn’s The American, The Hunter is a quietly powerful film that takes you to uncharted — and extremely treacherous — territory. Australia doesn’t come across as the gorgeous paradise it’s usually portrayed as here; Dafoe traverses a rugged land filled with life-threatening dangers both in the forest (the Tasmanian devils are particularly nasty creatures) and in the local dive bars (the natives don’t take too kindly to strangers). There’s a genuine sense of awe and mystery in this film — as well as an ever-mounting, looming dread that leads to almost inevitable tragedy, forcing the hero to make a choice between the job he was hired for and the higher calling of Mother Nature herself. . . or perhaps something in-between, a “balance” that can only be achieved through unnatural intervention.
[A side note: Perhaps the most remarkable (and strangest) thing about The Hunter is that it’s based on a 1999 novel by Julia Leigh, who recently made her own writing and directing debut with Sleeping Beauty. How this rural fable and a Kubrickian experiment about the unconscious plaything of dirty rich old men came from the same creative mind might be the film’s biggest mystery.]
The Hunter isn’t a perfect film; oftentimes it meanders when it feels like it should be picking up the narrative pace, and the shadowy, shady company behind Martin’s mission never feels quite as Big Brother-ish as it should. But this poetic yet unpretentious eco-thriller is ultimately extremely satisfying, a melancholy and dreamlike journey that you’ll feel almost proud to have taken.