Willem Dafoe (“Platoon”) gives an in explosive and unassuming performance as Martin, the mysterious hero at the center of Daniel Nettiheim’s quiet, intriguing debut film “The Hunter.” We don’t know much about Martin, except that he’s a hunter (and a good hunter at that) who’s hired by a biotech company called Red Leaf to go up in the rugged terrain of Tasmania to try and find and collect DNA samples for a Tasmanian Tiger, a rare animal thought to be extinct.
Dafoe brings a considerable amount of wisdom and matter-of-factness that feels genuine.
As the movie goes on it doesn’t tell us much about Martin’s life. Who is he exactly and where did he come from? Well, based on the fact that he takes on a private (and illegal) hunting job from a mysterious company we can infer that he doesn’t really have a home. In a scene at the beginning while he’s taking a bath, listening to classical music in what appears to be his apartment, we don’t see any photos of people (that means we can cross off the “dead spouse” cliché, the ever so popular device used to complicate distant characters like this), so Martin doesn’t have family. He’s a reserved man who would rather operate by himself and stay off the grid.
He has a scruffy beard and long combed-back hair, which further emphasizes the loner characteristic. He’s not concerned about his appearance; he doesn’t have to impress anyone. He may as well not even have a name, but simply be referred to as The Hunter. Like an assassin he doesn’t have time for relationships.
When Martin gets there, he’s met by both opposition and hospitality from the locals. It’s a barren, gloomy, secluded place (perfect for a lone operator). The local rough and tough out-of-work loggers -- or “Grimy’s” as they’re called -- don’t like outsiders, and as the movie goes on, as they slowly find out what he’s doing there they don’t like him even more. On the other hand he befriends a family made up of two young children and their mother (Frances O Conner) that he stays with. This is not OK, much like a noble samurai Martin can’t get distracted by people, it will throw him off and divert his attention from the job at hand but they’re the only people he can trust.
For the most part “The Hunter” is straightforward in its narrative, there’s nothing very metaphysical about it. The picture goes back and forth featuring Martin deep into the Tasmanian forest, trekking around for the elusive tiger (Nettiheim was fortunate enough to be able to shoot the movie entirely on location and along with cinematographer Robert Humphreys they wonderfully capture the harsh beauty of the Tasmania) and Martin back in town interacting with the family and other characters like Jack (Sam Neill) a shady friend of the family.
It is true; the movie can be slow at times, especially when Martin is up in the forest. Nettiheim devotes a lot of time to showing Martin setting up traps, and looking for clues but that’s important to his character. A hunter is slow and has to be patient in looking for his prey. The movie isn’t in a rush to go anywhere.
“The Hunter” walks a curious line between starkness and gentleness. It can be fairly blunt in its depiction of violence, but subtly so. We see Martin shoot and tear the guts out of a small Kangaroo in all its glory, but the movie simply shakes it off. Much like Martin, it’s treated as casual business. At the same time there are a number of tender, sometimes humorous scenes that show Martin bonding with the family (especially the kids).
Unfortunately, where “The Hunter” fails is the end. Nettiheim (who also wrote the screenplay) has all these different parts in place, Martin, the innocent woman and children, the Grimy’s, the free spirited academics or “the Greenies” and to add even more intrigue, the company of Red Leaf. However he can’t find a way to bring them to a satisfying and thrilling resolve.
No matter how slow the movie is the thing that keeps you invested is how it’s all going to play out. What’s going to happen to the mother and her kids? What will happen to Marin, when Red Leaf finds out he’s not fully focused on his job? I’m not saying all the loose ends need to be tied up but the movie wastes the suspense it builds up.
Still, “The Hunter” is a good movie, and Martin is the main drive. We may not learn much about his background in the end but much like The Joker from “The Dark Knight” or Driver from “Drive” the less we know the better.