There is a point in the new film “The Hunter” when the title character — played with quiet intensity by Willem Dafoe — wonders about the Tasmanian tiger that he’s hunting for a mysterious corporation.
The character asks if the animal is the last survivor of its kind, and if the creature itself is simply “hunting and killing, waiting to die.” Both the concepts of mortality and the sanctity of nature play major roles in this new drama based on the novel by Julia Leigh.
As hunter Martin David, Dafoe plays an outsider in a small community that often rejects strangers.
“Go home, Greenie scum,” one local writes on his windshield using a material that would be better placed in a toilet than on a vehicle. The local logging community believes that David is their nemesis and treats him as such. They believe that David is there — not to hunt — but to undermine their way of life.
But that is only the beginning of this dark and gritty film that provides Dafoe with a strong and powerful leading role. David doesn’t seem to like outsiders, but he befriends a local woman played by Frances O’Connor who lets him stay with her. Her husband has gone missing, and she’s been reduced to a pill-popping loner without much of a handle on life. Her two children — a boy and a girl — seem to be raising themselves.
Eventually, David helps lead his boarder out of her darkened state and offers a welcome reprieve from the dreary life she’s been living. When David fixes the generator, lighting up the house and filling it with music, it seems like Christmas has come again. The children are so excited and thrilled to get normalcy back into their lives that they embrace David for his generosity.
One of the strangest aspects of “The Hunter” is how old-fashioned it is. It doesn’t rely on chase sequences or violence to compel the audience. It’s more of a character study than anything else, and the characters it studies are both the title one and nature itself. And in showing nature, this movie often slows down to let viewers absorb the atmospheric brilliance of the wilderness David walks through. The story simply pauses in these moments, like when we watch the lead character kill a rabbit for dinner. And it pauses to show how natural inhabitants of the woods devour the animal’s remains.
It’s often-times difficult to appreciate a movie like “The Hunter.” Moviegoers are often so accustomed to fast-paced thrillers rather than character studies that movies such as this can disappoint. Even I was surprised by the film’s slow pace. But if you let yourself be wrapped up in this story, it will surprise you.
This is a movie that loves nature and embraces atmospheric sequences showing nature as cold and intriguing as it often can be.
Early on, David — who is hiding the fact that his objective is finding the rare tiger — tries to throw people off his scent. “You know they are extinct. They’re gone,” he says about the tiger. They may be rare but as the movie shows, such tigers are still around.
And movies like this — despite their rarity and the little publicity they receive — are around as well. And I’m thankful for it.