The Hunter: Toronto Review

The Hunter - Movie Still: Willem Dafoe (L) and Sam Neill (r) - H - 2011
Toronto Film Festival
Willem Dafoe stalks his four-footed prey against a breathtaking wilderness backdrop in this moody thriller from Australia

Daniel Nettheim, a Sydney-based helmer with mostly TV credits to his name, delivers a haunting psychological thriller from Australia, based on an acclaimed novel by Julia Leigh.

SYDNEY — Willem Dafoe’s extraordinary face, with its startling proportions and rivulets of flesh, seems to have been fashioned for the sole purpose of playing the fixated title character in The Hunter. As a mysterious agent sent to the wilds of Tasmania to track down the last surviving Tasmanian tiger, the actor’s unwavering gaze almost single-handedly propels the narrative of this haunting psychological thriller from Australia.

But The Hunter, based on an acclaimed novel by Julia Leigh (whose directing debut, the erotic drama Sleeping Beauty, is also screening at TIFF) is more than a showcase for Dafoe’s singular mug.

Precisely directed by Daniel Nettheim, a Sydney-based helmer with mostly TV credits to his name, it taps into questions of solitude and loneliness, obsession and repression of emotion, all tied up with an eco-conscious bow.

With a cast that also includes Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor, this low-key, compelling film should chase down some solid box office upon its Australian release on October 6. Producer Vincent Sheehan, whose Porchlight Films was responsible for last year’s successful Australian export Animal Kingdom, can be confident of sparking international intrigue with its screening in the Special Presentations program at TIFF, where festival-goers will find at least one allegory to chew over.

Like the magnificent old-growth forests of its Tasmanian wilderness setting,Nettheim’s deliberately paced film is atmospheric and full of mystery, giving up its secrets reluctantly.

Dafoe plays a man posing as a naturalist named Martin David, who has come to the Australian island state of Tasmania ostensibly to study the native Tasmanian devils. His mission, however, is more sinister: He is a mercenary sent by an anonymous multi-national biotech company to track down the fabled Tasmanian tiger so its genetic material can be harvested.

The tiger, a savage dog-like beast with a striped pelt, has been officially considered extinct since the mid-1930s, but interest is periodically stirred with rumored sightings.

Local guide Jack Mindy (Neill) sets Martin up in a pre-arranged base camp – the dishevelled home of Lucy Armstrong (O’Connor) and her two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and the mute Bike (newcomer Finn Woodlock). It is a remote house perched on the edge of a vast wilderness and it echoes with loneliness.

Lucy, a hippie with a PhD, has been self-medicating with prescription medication since her eco-warrior husband, Jarrah, disappeared on the mountain plateau above, and her children are running wild.

Martin loses himself in his clandestine mission, prowling the stillness of the high country with fanatically focussed intent. Dafoe keeps him locked down, an independent, single-minded creature of the hunt.

A natural caginess allows him to hide his true mission from his hosts, as well as the hostile townspeople, mostly loggers locked in a long-running feud with environmentalist protesters. Green is their least favorite color and they’re also deeply suspicious of foreigners, who are, in the words of Jack Mindy, “about as popular as a snake in a sleeping bag.”

The screenplay, written by Alice Addison after an original adaptation by Nettheim and Wain Fimeri, teases out plot points slowly. As Martin becomes aware that his own solitary forays into the backwoods are being tracked, his growing connection to Lucy and her children begins to peel back the layers of misanthropy he has wrapped himself in and the hunter finds himself confronted by his own emotional vulnerability.

The perfection of the environment too, gets under his skin as the landscape itself seems to mirror his shifting inner topography. The Hunterwas shot entirely on location in Tasmania and quietly sweeping cinematography by Robert Humphreys (Unfinished Sky) maps the spectrum of untamed terrain and extreme weather conditions. Intermittent birdsong punctures the silences, while an economical score by Andrew Lancaster, Matteo Zingales and Michael Lira, helps build a brooding tension. An unexpected burst of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” which shatters more than the stillness, is a master stroke.


Venue: Toronto International Film Festival, Special Presentations
Production company: Porchlight Films
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor, Sam Neill
Director: Daniel Nettheim
Screenwriter: Alice Addison
Producer: Vincent Sheehan
Executive producers: Liz Watts, Anita Sheehan, Paul Wiegard
Director of photography: Robert Humphreys
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Music: Andrew Lancaster, Matteo Zingales, Michael Lira
Editor: Roland Galois
Sales: E1 Entertainment
No rating, 101 minutes