A mercenary searching for the extinct Tasmanian Tiger has his suppressed humanity stirred in uneven Aussie psychological drama-cum environmental thriller “The Hunter.” Beautifully lensed and impeccably performed by topliner Willem Dafoe, debut helmer Daniel Nettheim’s adaptation of the novel by author-filmmaker Julia Leigh (“Sleeping Beauty”) maintains an intriguing ambience, but general auds may feel they’re not given enough information about the protag to become fully immersed in his journey toward redemption. Opening domestically Oct. 6 following its Toronto world preem, pic’s name cast should help snare respectable biz locally and in selected offshore markets.
The overarching plot is a real grabber: A soldier of fortune (Dafoe) is recruited in Paris by a middleman (Jacek Koman) representing a shady biotech company to secure potentially priceless DNA from a Tasmanian Tiger. (The Tiger — the “dog with a wolf’s head” — has long captured the public imagination Down Under with rumors of its survival since the last specimen died in captivity in 1936 and the species was officially declared extinct in 1986.)
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Assuming the name Martin David and the persona of a university researcher studying the common Tasmanian Devil, David is met in a remote part of the island state by Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a local guide who arranges lodging for the visitor at the run-down house of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor).
In the first third of the film, the interests of Lucy, left virtually comatose by the sedatives she’s taken in the many months since her zoologist husband disappeared in the bush, are related by her daughter, Sass (Morgana Davies), a sparky tween with a strikingly adult vocabulary, and her shy younger brother, Bike (Finn Woodlock). But as the film progresses, David’s lonely, mysterious excursions into the wilderness for what local legend suggests is the last surviving tiger, are punctuated by meetings with a now sedative-free Lucy, with whom he establishes a bond. And his father-like connection with the children helps him pick up a crucial lead to the tiger.
The fate of Lucy’s husband and a background confrontation between environmental activists and loggers add a slow-burning suspense to the mix, but the story’s primary aim of getting auds to empathize with David’s transformation from an emotional blank to a man with genuine feelings is undercut by the narrow perimeters drawn around him.
Though hardly providing a detailed profile of the central character, Leigh’s 1999 novel offered enriching snapshots of his difficult childhood, lack of meaningful relationships and his experiences as a hired hand in military operations. Dafoe’s perf as the lone wolf is spot-on, but the absence of any such backgrounding leaves auds to only imagine what has brought him to this personal crossroads.
Assisted by an engaging turn from Neill as the friendly local with something to hide and O’Connor’s punchy role as a distressed wife and mother with more to fear than she might dare imagine, Nettheim’s carefully considered direction successfully molds David’s hunt for the elusive tiger into a metaphor for the insecurities of the main players.
Widescreen lensing by Robert Humphreys boldly contrasts staggeringly beautiful landscapes with moody interiors reflecting the characters’ fears. Subtle music and haunting slivers of ambient sound by Matteo Zingales, Michael Lira and Andrew Lancaster contribute mightily to the mythical aura surrounding David’s prey. The rest of the tech work is first-class.