Nettheim Delivers Another Australian Entry about the Tantalizing Tasmanian Tiger
After working in television for the past decade, director Daniel Nettheim returns with The Hunter, his first feature film since 2000, a stark adaptation of Julia Leigh’s novel concerning one of Australia’s most enticing subjects, the extinct Tasmanian tiger. The ominous and foreboding terrain of Tasmania proves to be the film’s greatest asset in an otherwise unsurprising and unchallenging film about a perennially explored subject.
Willem Dafoe stars as Martin David, a mercenary from Europe hired by a military biotech company called Redleaf to find what may very well be the last Tasmanian Tiger. Various sightings are reported yearly of this creature assumed to be extinct, much like UFOs or the Loch Ness Monster. Dispatched out of France, David stresses that he will only take the job if he is solo. The mission is top secret and he is tasked with bringing back samples. Why the biotech company wants the creature so badly is unknown to him, but his contact confirms that the tiger is one of the rarest and elusive creatures on the planet, and this is the last one (though how anyone has confirmed this is not discussed).
David is granted lodging with a family residing in the rural wilderness, where the father has been missing for several weeks, the mother (Frances O’Connor) will not get out of bed, and the children are badly in need of some attention. He quickly discovers the locals don’t take kindly to foreigners, and the missing father, Armstrong, was a foreigner also in search of the Tazzie Tiger. Sam Neill stars in a brief role as a friend of the Armstrong family and as David’s local contact—but it becomes quickly evident that he’s not who he says he is. As events begin to spiral out of control, David questions his mission and his intentions.
Despite having a terribly opaque title, the first half of The Hunter has some eerie tension as a grizzled Dafoe enters the Tasmanian wilderness and stumbles upon hints of conspiracy and murder. However, this quickly dissolves when the film takes a nosedive into clichéd territory concerning crazy/angry locals, an all-too-obviously sinister Sam Neill, a poorly realized climax, and a lazy resolution. The biggest detraction is that the hunt for the Tasmanian Tiger is nothing new to cinema (off the top of my head, an Australian horror film from 2008, Dying Breed manages to use this creature more inventively).
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with Dafoe’s performance and O’Connor happens to be a breath of fresh air, his character all too easily assumes the role of husband and father figure of the missing scientist, coming off as more of a time wasting diversion than anything. On the other hand, the cinematography via Robert Humphreys is excellent, as is the use of music in a handful of scenes. In particular, this film has to make the most haunting use of a Bruce Springsteen song one may ever experience.
Reviewed on September 9 at the 2011 Toronto Int. Film Festival – SPECIAL PRESENTATIONS Programme.