The problem with The Hunter is that it is in fact two different films. One is a relationship drama, the tale of a lonely, isolated man finding a family. The other is a tense, quiet, conspiracy thriller with spiritual overtones, played out against the backdrop of an ideological dispute between environmentalism and labour. This is hardly a match made in heaven, and though there is a thematic throughline, it doesn’t manage to fully meld the two halves. As a result The Hunter comes across as confused, and is undone by that confusion.
The titular Hunter is a man named Martin David (Willem Dafoe), a mercenary, bounty-hunter-ish person suffering from Unspecified Malaise, which is the bubonic plague of independent movies. He is hired by the not-at-all-sinister military company Red Leaf to go to Tasmania. His mission: to find and capture the Tasmanian tiger, a striped, doglike marsupial thought to be extinct, whose paralysing poison would be of considerable value if reverse-engineered. In order to ensure that they remain the only ones hunting for the animal Martin is ordered undercover. As such, he ends up staying in a house of hippies under the fiction that he is a university researcher. There he encounters two children: Bike (Finn Woodlock) and Sass (Morgana Davies), and immediately the precocious bonding commences.
But these are not your everyday child actors. In fact, the performance given by these kids is easily the high point of the film. Davies manages to keep her childish talkiness the right side of irritating, her chattering instead being consistently funny and sweet, even with her slight lisp. Woodlock is also adorable, and, thinking back on the film, crazy talented. His role, as a withdrawn, silent boy, scarred by the disappearance of his father and the mental collapse of his mother, makes for an entire movie with no talking. And yet he is a good enough actor that his silence speaks volumes. In addition it is his relationship with Dafoe’s character that is the core of the film, and holding his own against such a seasoned veteran is an achievement an actor twice his age should treasure.
By comparison I don’t feel Dafoe brought his A-game to The Hunter. That’s not to say his performance is bad: such would be the ramblings of a madman. Dafoe perfectly captures the chill isolation of Martin’s life. Unfortunately, the thaw is less convincing. This feels like a film where the central character should end up transfigured, where the person he becomes at the end should be very different to the person he was at the beginning. But that is not the case. Dafoe’s performance never loses the chill, and this undermines a lot of his more emotional moments towards the end.
But really, the problem with The Hunter is with the story, not the lead. Simply put, the parts of this film where Dafoe and the kids are interacting, where John Martin is coming out of his shell and becoming part of the family; those parts are engaging, delightful and fun. The parts that concern his hunt for the Tasmanian tiger? Well they’re good from a character perspective, and show that at least one of the writers (probably Julia Leigh, who wrote the original book) really knows their stuff when it comes to trapping. But they’re also pretty freaking dull. I frequently found myself drifting off during these sequences, staring blankly at the screen and getting lost in my own thoughts. I had to make an effort to pay attention. That is less than ideal.
For my money, this lack of engagement is a result of these scenes deviating from the central theme. The Hunter is a movie about emergence from a living death. John Martin at the beginning of the film is basically a zombie. He pointedly avoids human company. He listens to classical music, but has no idea what any of it means. There’s even this visual metaphor in which Martin takes a bath, slides under the surface, and lies there for as long as possible, before erupting out of the water like a corpse from his grave. This cycle of death and forced rebirth is broken when the children invade his bath: their lively enthusiasm interrupts his Lazarus-style ritual and symbolises the return of true life.
It’s a great theme. Unfortunately, it’s not till the very end that it becomes part of his hunt for the tiger. Instead to pass the time we have a conspiracy thriller subplot that, though fairly well-constructed, feels disconnected and wasteful. What I cared about in The Hunter was Martin’s awakening, and I didn’t have many shits left to give for the outcome of a vague murder-mystery. I might have had some care for a subplot based around an ideological conflict between environmentalism and labour, which the film promises now and again. Irritatingly though, The Hunter leaves that potentially interesting avenue unexplored. Workers and environmentalists are, broadly speaking, both ‘good guys’ from a left-wing political perspective. Having such a perspective, I would love to witness an examination of a conflict between them and the social consequences. But though the film promised, it never delivered.
The Hunter then has much to recommend it. In the scenes with Dafoe and the kids bouncing off each other, there’s even a spark of greatness. But the film loses its way. It doesn’t develop where it should, and spends time where perhaps it shouldn’t. It is not a bad film. But it is confused and messy, and so ultimately devoid of lasting impact.
The Hunter UK trailer – starring Willem Dafoe, in cinemas nationwide 6 July Published via LongTail.tv