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Daniel Nettheim Hunts for awards; shoots self in foot
The Tasmanian “Tiger” took its name from a big cat and resembled a dog, but it was, in fact, neither. Thylacine, as it is properly called, belonged to the marsupial group, that quirky family of (mainly) Aussie creatures that defies classification—the hipsters of the mammalian world. On YouTube, you can still watch the last thylacine pace around its tiny enclosure, then stand on its hind legs—almost kangaroo-like—pawing at its cage. Since the animal went extinct in 1936, repeated “sightings” in the Tasmanian wilderness have created a persistent mythology around the peculiar creature.
Cut to the present, and Australian television director Daniel Nettheim’s takes on the storied creature in his debut film The Hunter. Featuring engrossing veteran leads Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill in pursuit of an iconic mystery down under, it should be an easy bulls-eye, but thanks to Nettheim’s muddled direction, The Hunter ends up missing its mark.
In the world of The Hunter, sinister defense contractors have taken quite an interest in the Tassie Tiger—they believe its DNA possesses vague, MacGuffin-like qualities ideal for weaponization. And so mysterious mercenary hunter Martin David (Dafoe) flies to Hobart with his high-powered rifle and, posing as a university researcher, rents a room in a remote Tasmanian town. He’s staying with a family of two near-feral children and their mother, who’s been in a drug-induced stupor since the disappearance of her husband, a zoologist and activist who may have been searching for thylacines himself. The rest of the community is menacing towards Martin and his host family—it’s a logging town, and local jobs are threatened by the efforts of academics and activists to protect Tasmanian wildlife.
The hunter is a silent, solitary man with an iPod full of operatic arias. We receive no clues to his past except the lines on Dafoe’s craggy face, which suggest a life of rugged exposure. Martin is so central to the plot that he appears in every scene, including long spells alone in the wilderness, stalking his prey. Dafoe’s steely reserve adds considerable gravitas to the part, and yet it would have been nice to see a supporting character like the guide Jack, played by Sam Neill, probe Martin and bring his internal conflicts out into the open. Though he’s billed alongside Dafoe in publicity for The Hunter, Neill, a New Zealander and mainstay of local cinema, is criminally neglected onscreen, detracting greatly from the Australian character of the film.
The best parts of The Hunter are the stunning visuals of the Tasmanian landscape, with its vast untouched valleys and snowy mountains. But every time Martin’s physical and mental struggles in the bush start to show promise, Nettheim decides it’s time for him to head back into town and become pointlessly embroiled in local melodramas. As the only developed character, Martin is required to be in every place at once. It leaves the audience pondering which of the many half-developed themes and plotlines the movie is actually supposed to be about—the hunt for the thylacine, Martin’s need for human connection, corporate treachery, or environmentalism.
There’s really no clear answer, except that perhaps in the midst of this mess, the well-meaning thylacine is better off extinct.