Willem Dafoe in The Hunter (2001) – cinema review
Not quite the Essential Killing-style wilderness actioner the marketing promises, but a warm, low-key and refreshingly unpretentious character piece anchored by a superb Willem Dafoe
(Daniel Nettheim, 2011)
Last year, I was unlucky enough to catch an Australian film called The Tree – a clunkily symbolic load of hogwash about a grieving widow whose daughter thinks her late father’s spirit resides in the oak next to their house. That film’s family is back in The Hunter, more or less (this time the dad is only missing and presumed dead, although the willowy, not-quite-there daughter is played by the same actress, the remarkable Morgana Davies). Yet this time any leanings towards artsy-fartsy magic realism are anchored in a supple piece of character drama.
It helps that The Hunter isn’t the story of that family but their lodger, Martin – the hunter of the title played by Willem Dafoe, who is tasked to track and kill the last known surviving Tasmanian Tiger, a species whose toxin is invaluable to shady scientific interests. It goes without saying that this cold-hearted, nomadic killer finds himself thawed by the guileless hippy-ish lifestyle of landlady Lucy (Frances Connor, still ravishing) and her kids. Meanwhile, the obvious eco-parable is reinforced by the local battle between locals employed by a logging firm and do-gooding ‘greenies.’
The story is based on a novel by Julia Leigh – who directed Sleeping Beauty – and the obvious temptation would be to make this the delicate, plaintive elegy it so obviously wants to be. And, were that version of the film to be made, it would be as insufferably literary and pretentious as The Tree was. Instead, the guy at the helm is Daniel Nettheim, a TV stalwart so prolific he even directed a few episodes of the recent revival of Doctor Who’s robot dog, K9. Not the usual person you’d associate with this material, but it’s precisely because Nettheim brings such a no-nonsense, journeyman’s approach that this works.
Forget symbolism: Nettheim simply gets on with telling a good story, concentrating on the central irony that Martin – whose cover story is of a zoologist studying the wildlife – is treated as hero and villain by the wrong sides, effecting the subtlest shift in his character not through the dialectic between nice, nature-loving free-spirits and nasty, money-grabbing destroyers – but because other people’s behaviour forces Martin to rethink his own lifestyle. It’s warmly, naturally acted by Connor, Davies and (especially) Finn Woodlock as the son, who so grief-stricken he has stopped speaking. Again, that’s the kind of character detail that on paper I absolutely hate but which works brilliantly because there’s a steadfast refusal to treat it as anything other than a psychological reaction to grief.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Nettheim is just a hack who didn’t have the wherewithal to pump up the pretension. But the film is so rigorous in its watchfulness it feels like good taste. It has the brisk, bracing air of a good TV movie, albeit one whose punch is packed into an incredible eye for landscapes – not least the granite visage of Willem Dafoe, whose primal presence dictates the pace and mood of the film. Some might find the tonal lurches between wilderness actioner and chick-lit family drama distracting, but Dafoe makes it feel natural.
When he’s out on his hunting excursions, setting traps and sitting in the snow and rain, Dafoe gives the film the feel of an Anthony Mann Western transposed to the Tasmanian wilderness. All of which makes his tender transformation into a surrogate father genuinely affecting, especially Dafoe’s rabbit-in-the-headlights bashfulness when faced with kids who unashamedly jump in the bath with him to avoid wasting water. It’s time to nail my colours to the mast: Dafoe is the the best actor who always get left off lists of the best actors.