Australian director Daniel Nettheim delivers The Hunter(2011) over the magnificent backdrop of the captivating Australian wilderness. From the start it’s clear that one of the inadvertent stars of this film will be the countryside of “the outback” itself, which includes a beautiful shot of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in silhouette. Then again, maybe everything, including the outback as a character is intentional in this film, which is underscored by a prominently environmental agenda.
Mercenary Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is sent from Europe by Red Leaf, a mysterious biotech company, to scour the Tasmanian wilderness (more specifically The Upper Florentine) for the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger. It’s believed that the tiger possessed a natural venom capable of paralyzing its victims – Red Leaf wants to harness that power.
The Tasmanian Tiger (scientific name Thylacinus cynocephalus). Was there such a thing? Is it extinct or has it survived and simply remained elusive? Presently, the Tasmanian Tiger is a fabled creature, like the Bigfoot or Chupacabra of America, with many unconfirmed sightings. Historically, the Tasmanian Tiger was the modern world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, once thriving throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea. Due to excessive hunting by early European settlers in the area, the tigers became extinct on the mainland and survived only on the island state of Tasmania. That is, until the entire species was driven to extinction in the wild in the early 1930s by farmer Wilf Batty (who’s credited with killing the last known of the wild creatures). Finally, the species as a whole was met with extinction when the last surviving captive tiger, “Benjamin,” died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. Since 1999, cloning efforts have been in place (which is lightly addressed in the film).
Hunter, which seems to be a perfect, natural role for actor Willem Dafoe – he has the gritty and innocent, yet resilient and intelligent look needed to play the part. Particularly interesting is his character’s (Martin David) affinity for the perils of nature, warm baths and opera. Perhaps this is a completely peaceful and tranquil combination but to some viewers, this may seem unrelated and requires a “connect the dots” process. It would also seem that Australian films have a knack for developing or using really outstanding child stars, the case here as well, as Morgana Davies (“Sass Armstrong”) shines again, as she did in 2010’s dramatic feature The Tree. Davies this time is tasked with portraying a bold, foul-mouthed child who runs the home while her mother’s ill. She’s adorable and a completely puzzle-perfect fit for the part.
The most impressive performance, however, comes from Finn Woodlock as “Bike Armstrong.” In the entire film, Bike never says one word but is essential to furthering the story with hand-drawn art and gestures. Even at a moment when he screams and what he’s yelling is obvious from lip-reading the director makes the decision to keep him silent – which is extremely effective in helping this child (not that he needed it) gain empathy from the audience.
It’s difficult not to be completely involved in this film because there are many elements hard at work – other than the acting. For instance, the film’s editing (by Roland Gallois) and score (by Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira and Matteo Zingales) create an uneasy tension that tends to dominate environmentally driven films – think the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist starring Sigourney Weaver. The score and editing work the same here, as this film is always full of tension essentially asking if Martin David will share the same fate in Australia as Dian Fossey did in Africa. Additionally, the scenery and landscapes throughout The Hunter are awe-inspiring and captivating (like the shots or rolling clouds, or those of the Tasmanian Snow Gum trees [above], or the overhead shot of the lagoon), it’s easy to see how many filmmakers could become lost in natural beauty – good thing director Daniel Nettheim knew how to use just the right amount.
The Hunter, also starring Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor, runs 104 minutes, is not rated and is not currently scheduled for a U.S. release.