With his weathered features and piercing gaze, Willem Dafoe excels in this low-key eco thriller about a minimalistic, mysterious mercenary. The Hunter loosely evokes similarly themed movies The American and Le Samourai, but lacks their narrative bite and visual flair.
Dafoe portrays Martin David, a shady figure tasked with tracking down the elusive (and possibly extinct) Tazmanian Tiger in its natural habitat in the outback. He's greeted with no power, no hot water and angry locals who smear the outsider's car with faeces, no doubt putting this movie alongside Wolf Creek and anything starring Yahoo Serious on the Australian Tourist Board's blacklist.
Martin also faces a tricky situation with his lodgings, as he has to look after two children as their mother (Frances O'Connor) is too whacked-out on medication to function. It emerges that her husband's disappearance could have links to Martin's mission. Unsurprisingly, the hunter becomes the hunted in the dangerous but beautiful wilderness as the film edges towards a thrilling and shocking climax.
The stunning denouement rewards patience, as much of the movie plods along at a pedestrian pace. Despite the efforts of O'Connor and Sam Neill, the supporting characters are not sufficiently developed – and neither is the ecological subplot about the locals fearing job losses brought on by conservationists.
A huge burden is therefore placed on Willem Dafoe, whose sublime performance is the movie's main draw. Along with occasional clues in the dialogue, such as Martin's boss saying "You NEED a result", Dafoe's physical reactions enable us to piece together parts of the puzzle. His fear at the domestic intimacy he's plunged into with the family he stays with, as evidenced by his haunted expression, instills us with both empathy and a hope he has a shot at redemption.
The Tazmanian outback is wonderfully captured by director Daniel Nettheim, with its fiery skies and treacherous terrain making the location a character in itself. Quite wisely, Nettheim adopts a mostly static lens to dwell on the fascinating countenance of Dafoe, reeling us into the mystery surrounding his true nature and background.
The Hunter avoids contrived thrills in favour of a slow-burning approach that relies heavily on Dafoe's increasingly empathetic turn. The grizzly finale and questions surrounding Martin's motivations mean that there's plenty to discuss afterwards, allowing this highly personal project to provide a pleasing antidote to this summer's bombastic blockbusters.