Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter is a film that is stripped back to its raw and primal essence, an unashamedly bleak and existential affair that draws the audience through an emotional wringer.
With its simple, explanatory title, the movie delivers exactly what it promises; a narrative solely revolving around a hunt. As bland as that may sound, the idea of surviving in the wild with the bare essentials, and against the malevolent force of nature, is as alien and fantastical to us as giant robots from space, superheroes or magic. It’s a long forgotten era of human history that has given way to a comfortable existence of smartphones, packaged food and the Internet and with such reliance on the self, the story is forced to explore one man’s confrontation with his conscience.
That man is Martin David (Willem Dafoe), a hardened Hunter that is shrouded in mystery. His meticulous ways and competent manner suggest a profession closer to that of an assassin rather than a game hunter, and his employ by a shadowy pharmaceutical company hints at a darker side to the narrative than we might expect. Martin’s clandestine ‘mission’ as it is termed, is the tracking and hunting of the Tasmanian Tiger, a beast thought extinct since the 1930’s.
Martin sets up base camp with a young, but fragmented family, who are coping with the disappearance of the patriarch. The mother Frances O’Connor keeps herself in a semi-comatose state while her young children fend for themselves. Martin inadvertently, and perhaps reluctantly, slowly assumes the patriarchal role, and the family becomes an anchor and a humanising force for the lone hunter.
The narrative is a compelling idea, however, Nettheim’s pacing is more than a little uneven which results in the movie losing a fair amount of gravitas. The three-act structure of the film invests heavily in the first; Martin spends a large amount of time alone in the wilderness and we observe him surviving, laying traps and working his skilled profession. At first it’s a thrilling sight to see something so primal, but it quickly becomes repetitive. It may be argued that the film is evoking the lifestyle of the hunter, and patience is required on the part of the audience to understand Defoe’s character which is a fair reading, just be warned you may be entirely mesmerised or completely bored.
The sedentary pace of the first act is complimented by the astounding beauty of the cinematography. Robert Humphreys captures the natural environment with subtlety and expertly works Dafoe within it. We are at all times reminded of the insignificance of the intruder as Dafoe appears dwarfed or lost by the amazing natural surroundings. The majesty of the wilderness is somewhat tempered once again by Nettheim’s lack of control over the chronology of events. Martin is often seen braving the elements, only for the film to cut and Martin to be restored at his civilised dwelling. The huge chronological ellipsis gives the wrong impression of the geographical proximity between isolation and civilisation. The three-month sojourns in to the mountains passes by at a trot and the journey home in a single cut. In this way, Dafoe’s character and his perilous mission is sadly undermined.
The third act eventually comes around, packed in to the last few minutes of the film. A simmering socio-political feud in the village comes to a head, and Martin realises he is not alone in the wilderness. It’s great to use the phrase ‘the hunter becomes the hunted’ which is the direction the narrative now takes, but alas this act rushes by so quickly, it’s hard to class it as a hunt, but rather, an encounter. It’s sadly an anti-climax out in the wilderness, but the story isn’t finished for the human drama unfolding between Martin and the family which takes an unexpected but poignant turn.
The Hunter Is a stunningly beautiful movie, slow-burning for most of the way but with a rewarding and thought-provoking conclusion. It cannot be expressed how perfect Dafoe is for the role, and the film is worth a watch just to grant Dafoe the much deserved screen time. Sam Neill lends capable support to the film, but unfortunately is somewhat redundant and underused for an actor of his calibre.
Martin eventually does get the Tasmanian Tiger in his sights but with a multitude of both broken and new loyalties you’ll have to watch to know if the trigger is pulled. The outcome will also force you to examine your own conscience and decide what a Tasmanian Tiger means to you.
The Hunter is playing at Cinema City Norwich until 22nd July. Book your tickets here.