Still Waters Run Deep: ‘The Hunter’

Willem Dafoe has one of those unique faces that makes him the perfect choice to play the vile denizens of the criminal world. He excels at playing vicious, off-beat characters that can inspire fear with their very presence. Although he might be considered handsome, Dafoe hides behind bad teeth, crazy hair, and outlandish make-up. When this appearance is combined with over-the-top theatrics, you have the makings of an excellent character actor.

The interesting counterpoint is that Dafoe has also shined as a dramatic lead. A perfect example is The Last Temptation of Christ, where his questions and doubts about his purpose completely sell the title character’s struggles. Indeed, that performance reveals that it’s unfair to categorize Dafoe as a supporting player.

A prominent new role that follows this trend is Martin David in The Hunter, an intriguing story of a man who finds his way in the Tasmanian wilderness. Recruited by a biotech company to hunt a very rare Tasmanian tiger, David seems to have a clear business purpose for making the trip. He masquerades as a scientist while searching for the extremely valuable commodity. This brings him into contact with Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor) and her two wonderful children. They wait anxiously for word on her husband, who was lost while hunting for the same animal.

Drawn in by this needy and generous family, David becomes the father figure the kids lost. He nurses their mom back to health and seems ready to give up his quest to stay with them. Unfortunately, his employers’ reach extends far into this wilderness and creates dire trouble for anyone who blocks their goals.

David is a quiet man who looks to avoid conflict, which isn’t easy in this rough town. The locals don’t take kindly to foreigners. Dafoe does an excellent job playing the quiet guy and gives one of his most believable performances. It’s stunning to watch him pull back and bring such heart to the character. It’s clear that he’s completely smitten with the kids and would do anything for them. Dafoe conveys this feeling with minimal dialogue, which is no easy task.

Frances O’Connor (Mansfield Park) is also great because she’s not your typical love interest. It’s possible that a romance could develop, but she doesn’t immediately fall for the guy. She’s skeptical but appreciates the caring after reaching such a low point. Even her frequent cursing doesn’t seem like a cheap device and fits with the set-up for these unconventional kids. The child actors (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock) are also much better in their roles than one may have expected.

This film is adapted from the 1999 novel of the same name by Julia Leigh, who directed Sleeping Beauty last year. It’s shot by Australian Daniel Nettheim, who’s worked primarily on many television series. He filmed the entire movie in Tasmania, and the beautiful natural environment plays a key role in the story. The long shots of Dafoe trudging alone through the grand wilderness are spectacular and add scale to the intimate story. Although it’s primarily a character study, the impressive scenery brings an epic feeling to David’s quest.

The promotion stressed the thriller elements, but that’s a small portion of the actual movie. He must deal with the danger of crossing his employers in the final act, yet Davis seems more interested in the emotional connects between himself and the Armstrong family.

This DVD release offers a solid collection of extras, including a feature-length commentary from Nettheim. The four- part documentary gives a nice overview of the production process. Behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew cover the expected material. The sections chronicle the story, the characters and cast, shooting in the Tasmanian landscape, and the tiger itself. The total feature runs about 30 minutes, with a good portion focusing on the characters.

The disc also contains six minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary from Nettheim. A few moments flesh out Sam Neill’s character and make him a greater part of the story.

The Hunter is an intriguing movie that benefits greatly from Dafoe remarkable performance. It ranks among the best roles of his career, which is saying a lot, given his impressive resume. Neill appears too briefly in a supporting part, but his screen time likely ended up on the cutting room floor. Neill’s Jack Mindy has a few notable scenes but feels out of place in the main plot. There are a few story and pacing issues that bring it down a little, but they’re mainly forgotten because we’re invested in the main characters. Nettheim’s confident direction keeps us engaged right up to the stunning conclusion.

RATING 7 / 10