Studio: Screen Australia, Porchlight Films, Jetty Distribution
Format: DVD, Blu-ray (reviewed)
Release Date: February 8, 2012
Price: $39.95 (available here)
The Hunter is the first major feature film from Australian director Daniel Nettheim, starring Willem Dafoe (Antichrist, Spider-Man) , Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) and Frances O’ Connor. This Tasmanian set drama is based upon the novel of the same name by Julia Leigh, and sees Dafoe’s character Martin plunge into the wilderness in search of what is thought to be the very last Tasmanian Tiger. The ‘some mysteries should never be solved’ tagline hints at the pervasive atmosphere of unease and mystery that runs through the film, and The Hunter is certainly a tense and at times highly emotional journey. The story is a fairly simple one but well told, backed up by highly engaging characters and a couple of great performances.
Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is hired by a military biotech company to track down what is believed to be the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger. The animal, believed to be extinct, holds in its DNA some useful secrets that the company will do anything to get their hands on. Martin is given strict orders – collect blood, hair, skin and organ samples, destroy the rest. That David takes on the job of hunting a species to extinction with no visible qualms establishes the dichotomy of his character. This is a man willing and able to kill efficiently, a loner who demands that he has no guide, yet he also befriends the family that he lodges with in the Tasmanian wilderness, and shows a good deal of heart in his dealings with them. The film too is a thing of two parts, with segments alternating between Martin tracking the elusive Tiger in the wilderness and spending time with Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two children. There’s a small subplot involving the logging of the local forest, but the greenies vs loggers battle is nowhere near as interesting as Martin’s own journey, reduced as it is to a conflict between bogan beer swilling loggers and fireball twirling hippies
When Martin arrives at the family’s home, it’s to find the two children running wild and the mother closeted away in bed. The kids are quick to ask if Martin is there to look for their father Jared, who they say has been up in the hills for a ‘long time’. Sam Neill plays against his usual Hollywood schtick as Jack, a rather creepy neighbor who reveals that Jared has in fact been missing for a year and is presumed dead – building on the sense of foreboding by making some pointed allusions about Jared’s similarities to Martin. This echoes the general feeling of unease that runs through the movie, which gradually unfolds to reveal an interesting if not unique story.
There are some big emotional kicks hiding in here too, with things becoming ever more complicated as David grows closer to the family, affecting his hunt for the Tiger. The affection and warmth he shows for the two children and their mother is in sharp contrast to the man who always hunts alone, setting vicious metal traps and gutting wildlife for his lures. Dafoe turns in a great performance as Martin, managing to balance the two sides of the character into one believable whole, steering well clear of any melodrama and making Martin a character who quietly steals his way into the audience’s affections. Frances O’Connor and Sam Neill also impress, but are outshone by the two young child actors – the girl in particular is fantastic, pulling off precocious without the usual added dose of irritability.
The last half hour of The Hunter turns what would have been a good film into a great one, and although it could veer too close to overly emotional for some, I was shocked by how much of an impact the final few scenes had on me. There is absolutely a pay off for all of the quiet tension building and subtle character work: if The Hunter manages to grab you in the beginning then the end will certainly become the tragic highlight of the film.
Audio & Visual:
The Hunter is a beautiful film , especially in pin sharp Blu-ray. The wild and rugged beauty of Tasmania is in full force here, with Martin’s journey lasting long enough to guide us through the harsh change of seasons. There are some fantastic shots of the strangely intimidating landscape, including some beautiful but danger filled moments in the snow and lashing rain – the Tasmanian Tourist Board couldn’t ask for more! The cinematography too, adds to the sense of unease that grows throughout the film, and is complimented by some fantastic choices in audio.
When Martin is in the wilderness the lack of dialogue and sparse sounds of modern life are drowned out by the wilderness, by birdsong, animal calls and the forest. What man made sounds there are come with all the greater impact, shattering the quiet yet tense atmosphere of the wilds. There are some very atmospheric pieces of original music within The Hunter that bring with them a subtle melancholy and sense of tragedy. These pieces are held to a counterpoint by the use of a couple of popular songs in key scenes with the family, with one Bruce Springsteen track in particular making for a memorable character scene.
A half hour making of documentary explores the films roots in the novel of the same name, and also provides some welcome information about the Tasmanian Tiger for those not already in the know about one of ecology’s great tragedies. The animal has taken on almost a mythic status in Tasmania, and despite the fact that it is declared extinct, there are always fresh if unconfirmed reports from locals of sightings. It’s a reflection of the film’s success that watching this extra I was keen to agree with the locals interviewed by the film makers, who on the whole have faith that there are some Tigers still out there.
Three samples of music highlight the wonderful soundtrack for the film and are accompanied by galleries of stills taken from the main feature. There’s also an audio commentary with director Daniel Nettheim and producer Vincent Sheehan, which nicely extends to the handful of deleted scenes. The two are keen to dish out interesting details about the making of the film and are fairly easy to listen to.An ATOM study guide and Madman trailers also accompany the main feature.
It’s a good enough selection for the release, although the incredibly slight colour differences in the menu text makes it quite hard to see what you’re selecting.
The Hunter can add itself to the ever growing collection of great Australian films. If you let it sweep you into it’s quiet yet dangerous world there’s a lot to be had here, and as a newcomer to Australia I’m glad to have watched it as an introduction to Tasmania and the Tiger. Dafoe anchors the film very well with a quiet but highly expressive performance which reflects the film as a whole – not brash or loud or flashy, The Hunter is a subtle, well written film packed with tension and plenty of moments that are both uncompromising and unpredictable.