Friday, June 1, 2012
LITTLE ROCK The Hunter, filmed in Tasmania, has the faintly surreal look peculiar to Australian movies in which nature pulses with a mysterious, primordial shimmer. Adapted from Julia Leigh’s novel and directed by Daniel Nettheim from a screenplay by Alice Addison, the film tells the story of a lone hunter from another continent searching for a creature that may not exist in an old-growth forest largely untouched by humans.
There are moments, as the hunter wanders through the wilderness, when you wonder if a dinosaur might appear.
His elusive prey is the Tasmanian tiger, a predator that is thought to have been extinct since 1936, when the last specimen died in captivity. Vintage footage of the creature, with its striped fur and doglike face, is seen early in the movie.
If the Tasmanian tiger is a ready-made symbol that invites all sorts of grandiose interpretation, The Hunter admirably refrains from pushing its implications to the forefront. They are embedded in the story and in the cinematography of Robert Humphreys, whose sweeping depictions of the highlands where the hunter, Martin (Willem Dafoe), ventures, appear prehistoric and forbidding.
Prehistoric might also describe the cavernous face of Dafoe, now 56. Its crags, angles and lines constitute a virtual contour map and metaphorical mirror image of the rugged mountain territory he enters, equipped with telescopic rifles and elaborate traps.
At the same time, there is something soft about Dafoe’s screen persona: not soft as in weak, but in his essential kindness and openness of spirit. Even in the toughest, most macho roles, Dafoe, who once played Jesus, retains a tinge of Christ-like sweetness and vulnerability.
Martin is no goody-goody. A freelance mercenary, he is dispatched by a military biotech company called Red Leaf to fly from Paris to Hobart, Australia, on a secret mission to find a Tasmanian tiger, after rumors of sightings. His mission is to trap the beast and retrieve samples of skin, blood and organs so that the company can harvest its DNA and develop the anesthetic secreted by the tiger to immobilize its prey.
An enigmatic local resident named Jack (Sam Neill) has arranged for Martin to stay with an eco-activist, Jarrah, who is not at home when Martin arrives at his remote mountain cabin. The generator there is broken, leaving Jarrah’s family with no electricity or hot water.
Jarrah, Martin learns, has been missing for a year, and his wife, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), fortified by sleeping pills and tranquilizers, has withdrawn into a stupor, letting their two children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and her younger brother, Bike (Finn Woodlock), run wild. The daughter is outgoing and profane; the son silent, with expressive eyes. He and Martin develop a deep, unspoken connection.
In the story’s weakest thread, Martin rouses Lucy out of her depression in almost no time, and the four become a family of sorts. If The Hunter were a product of Hollywood, the two would become romantically involved. But the movie resists pushing the usual buttons.
Trouble greets Martin the moment he sets foot in a bar where loggers congregate. Because of where he is staying, he is presumed to be a treehugging “greenie,” intent on destroying their livelihood. And his cover story - that he is from a university, conducting a study of the raccoonlike Tasmanian devil - doesn’t wash. Tense standoffs between Martin and the loggers, who pay an unannounced visit to Lucy’s house one evening, are charged with menace. It is strongly suggested that they may have killed Jarrah.
The movie minimizes the book’s comparisons of Martin to the feral animal he is stalking. Although Dafoe’s Martin is a credible frontiersman, the hunter-prey contest is insignificant compared with the film’s allegorical contemplation of opposing forces: the promises and illusions of technology; survival versus conservation; the meaning of extinction in the age of cloning; and, ultimately, the mystery of the past versus the uncertainty of the future.
As the story develops, Martin is increasingly humanized by his experience. But he doesn’t turn into a bleeding heart.
The Hunter never declares who is good or bad or right or wrong. And the implications of Martin’s decision when the moment of truth finally arrives are left for the viewer to unravel.
The Hunter 87
Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O’Connor, Morgana Davies
R, for language and brief violence
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 06/01/2012