Friday 20 July 2012
(Daniel Nettheim, 2011) Julia Leigh's superb, evocative novel upon which The Hunter is based does a fine job in balancing the demands of a thriller with a finer sort of literary character study. Her protagonist empathises with the beast - the supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger- as he finds its tracks and follows its progress across the vast, beautiful Tasmanian wilderness. He has been sent to capture it, to take DNA samples, by a shadowy corporation, and he stays with a local woman and her two small children. Their father has disappeared in the same wilderness, and as he spends more time in the area, the Hunter finds himself developing feelings for the widow, the children, and his quarry. Nettheim's film doesn't change any of that. The hunter here, played by Willem Defoe with a haunted, hunted quality which resonates beautifully with the material, softens gradually to the two children who seem to trust and like him immediately. Frances O'Connor is less well-defined as their mother, though her optimism and gentleness is attractive in a world portrayed as beautiful but cruel. The other locals are all threats, from Sam Neill's snooping family friend to the environmentalists hired to find the Tiger for themselves and the local loggers, who threaten and intimidate the outsider. Defoe has an outsider quality - with that cranial face, those big teeth and those hooded eyes he sometimes seems more Orc than man - which makes him perfect for this role, and he is very good here. The major element of the books success the film is unable to recreate is his internal shift from purposefully business-minded to sympathy with the Tiger. We see him track it and see it through the eyes of te small boy, who draws pictures of the creature, but that is not enough to really communicate any change in him. What it does get right is the paranoid tension that grows throughout the narrative. The hunter finds signs that he is being watched and followed. He finds traces of the missing man, who may have been his predecessor in the hunt. He feels a presence in the trees. Nettheim makes sure that the many lovely shots of man in stunning landscape carry a sinister, brooding charge, and the spectacular country make his job an easy one in this regard. His film is a slightly arty, nicely paced and visually stunning quasi-thriller which is, for all it's strengths, never quite as memorable or gripping as it might be.