Dafoe keeps ‘The Hunter’ on target
Ask not what Willem Dafoe is doing tracking down the elusive Tasmanian tiger in “The Hunter.” Just be thankful this wiry, wily actor — battle-scarred from experiences in avant-garde theater, mainstream blockbusters, and everything in between — has landed a rare lead role, even if he literally had to go to the other side of the planet to find it. Does it matter that the movie, a sort of romantic hit man eco-drama, becomes increasingly unglued as it goes along? Not when you watch Dafoe hold the frame on the strength of his weathered cheekbones alone.
He plays Martin David — the name’s almost certainly a pseudonym — who we’re led to believe is one of the most skilled big-game hunters in the world. He’s also a Zen loner who dresses impeccably and listens to opera when he’s not adjusting his gun sights. Hired by a faceless military contractor to bring in the last remaining Tasmanian tiger (the company wants its toxin to develop bioweaponry), Martin rents a room from a family whose sprawling cabin perches on the edge of the wilderness.
Wait, wouldn’t a man this professionally secretive find a shack of his own? In “The Hunter,” suspension of disbelief is trumped by the need to get Martin caring about other people again. The father of the family is missing, possibly the victim of foul play, and the mother, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), is prostrate from grief and the tranquilizers given her by Jack (Sam Neill), a dodgy bush guide. Martin’s initial points of contact are the couple’s two young children, a self-possessed girl named Sass (Morgana Davies) and the silent Bike (Finn Woodlock), who may know more about Tasmanian tigers than he’s (not) saying.
Fold in a story line about the tensions between local loggers and tree-hugging “greenies,” and you have a movie with more plot than it can comfortably handle. The best scenes in “The Hunter” send Martin up into the rocky high country of Tasmania’s Upper Florentine Valley, searching for the striped, dog-like marsupial more properly known as a thylacine. He sets snares, discovers traces of trespassing humans, and mostly waits in stillness. Few actors do stillness better than Dafoe. He has a natural poise and the eyes of a raptor, and he conveys Martin’s entire philosophy of life without moving a muscle.
Too bad, then, that “The Hunter” keeps sending him back down the mountain for regular installments of melodrama. Lucy awakes from her mourning, and once Martin and we get a good look at O’Connor (1999’s “Mansfield Park”), everyone’s hooked on her character’s distressed beauty. As Sass, Davies confirms the impression from 2010’s “The Tree” that she may yet become Australia’s answer to Dakota Fanning. But Neill’s character never quite makes sense, and neither does Martin’s awakening to the pleasures of family and community. It should take more than one hearing of the Boss’s “I’m on Fire” to turn him away from arias and art songs.
“The Hunter” becomes turgid with corporate conspiracies, hired assassins, and offscreen tragedies, and the appealing leanness of the early scenes gets lost. The film’s based on a novel by the writer-director Julia Leigh (Daniel Nettheim helmed this adaptation), and perhaps the “shocking” climax made more sense on the page. On the screen it manages the hat trick of seeming unconvincing, unnecessary, and cruel, even if Dafoe tries to make his actions defensible through the sheer stoicism of his performance. Maybe the Tasmanian devil made him do it.