Review: THE HUNTER, a Slow-Burning, Gorgeous Thriller That Stumbles Badly

[The Hunter opens in limited release in the U.S. tomorrow. The following review was originally published during the International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year, under the title "THE HUNTER (The One in Tasmania)."]


(Question: do you even NEED a story when you have Willem Dafoe and the Tasmanian landscape to look at?)

Before you ask: "the one in Tasmania" is not the official tagline for Daniel Nettheim's new film. But it was its un-official name during the International Film Festival Rotterdam, due to the fact that there were TWO films called The Hunter in this year's program, the other one getting the nick "the one in Russia".

Nettheim's film was the closer of the festival, and is a thriller-slash-drama based on the novel by Julia Leigh. Willem Dafoe stars as Martin, a freelance hunter who is sent to Tasmania by a biotech corporation to illegally hunt an animal that is supposed to have been extinct for decades already.

Interesting premise to say the least. So how is the film? Read on!


The Story:

Martin is a freelance hunter, renting his services to the highest bidder. His latest mission turns out to be for a biotech corporation who need him for a shady job: Martin must try to get DNA samples of a living Tasmanian Tiger, an animal presumed to be extinct for almost eighty years, and then kill off all the remaining ones so no other company can ever get similar samples.

Once in Tasmania, Martin discovers the area he has to search in is huge and his presence unwanted. Worse, there are signs that other hunters are around. When he rents a room to set up a base of operations Martin inadvertantly gets tangled up into local affairs, including some concerning the widow he stays with and her children...


The Movie:

Some films are good, some films are bad, and some are terribly frustrating to write about. Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter fits strongly into that last category, mostly because it manages to stay in the first category for so long. But then the film suddenly scores into its own goal a few minutes before extra time, losing the match with mere seconds to spare.

Irritatingly, discussing what in my opinion is wrong with the film involves going almost as deep into spoiler territory as Martin ventures into the Tasmanian jungle, and I will not do that even though my prey is far less elusive.

Just telling what is good about The Hunter can make a pretty impressive list. For most of the running time this is a very competently made slow-burning thriller about a dangerous loner who slowly but surely starts to go native. Circumstances force Martin to spend more time with the people he rents a room from than he planned. As he becomes less lonely through his interactions with them he also starts to have doubts about his mission, or the mess he will most likely leave behind. This process is shown at a believably slow pace, interspersed with Martin's long hunting travels through the Tasmanian landscape.

The Tasmanian tourist board could do worse than edit a commercial out of this film by the way, because their country looks absolutely beautiful in it whether it's raining, snowing or in full sunshine. Watching this film just for the pretty pictures sure is not a punishment.

Acting-wise there are no complaints either. Willem Dafoe is always watchable but here he is fantastic as Martin, and believable as a surviving hard-ass camper. Can we have a thriller with Willem Dafoe and Liam Neeson, hunting each other in a wilderness, please? Just a thought.
The other parts in the film are well cast too, with Frances O' Connor and Sam Neill providing strong support.

Yet despite all this goodness, this not my favorite film of this year's festival. Far from it even. And the main reason for that is that it overplays its ecological message near the end. Make no mistake: I do not mind the film having an ecological message. To be honest, given the premise of The Hunter nobody should be surprised that it has one.

My problem is that suddenly an overly simplistic shock effect is unnecessarily introduced, and minutes later we even see something that is almost unnatural, or at least inconsistent with the film's effort to keep it rooted in realism so far. It's as if the forests themselves suddenly start talking to Martin, lamenting that "humans are sooooooo evil...".

Maybe the film just follows the book it's been based on and that would let director Nettheim partly off the hook. Notice I say partly. The end effect is the same though: I was yanked from the story by its sudden unbelievability and failed to get back into it. And no matter how well-intentioned the message was or how well-developed the characters were, it got hard for me to care about them through the artificial barrier which had suddenly been introduced.

When I left the cinema I wasn't angry at what humans do to their environment or each other (well, not more angry than usual) but angry at the wasted opportunity in what I had just seen, especially because The Hunter gets so close to true greatness.

Surely, that cannot have been the intention behind the film.


Conclusion:

Tasmania is absolutely gorgeous and Willem Dafoe is as fascinating as always. Therefore The Hunter has the odds firmly stacked in its favor and for most of its running time it seems to become a fantastic film. But its third act stumbles badly, several times over, spoiling most of it.

So it's cautiously recommended, at best.

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