At its outset, Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter looks like it will be a beautifully shot, methodically-paced, and thoughtful twist on the hit-man genre. What if instead of tasking an assassin with taking out a single person, a killer is hired to take out a species? Not for fun, mind you, but because that last animal could potentially hold valuable compounds in its blood, organs, skin, or hair. Coupled with dangers of how one goes about moving a species from endangered to extinct, there’s plenty of room to not only show the methods of a hunter, but also the moral questions raised by his actions. Nettheim ignored all of this potential in favor of forcing awkward sentimentality that ranges from the unbelievable to the downright creepy.
Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is hired by the Red Leaf Corporation to hunt down and harvest the Tasmanian Tiger. The animal was thought to be extinct but there have been unconfirmed sightings in the past year. David must not only track down the animal but he must also keep an eye out for other hunters. Since he also can’t go to Tasmania and say “Hey, I’m here to kill off a species,” he goes under the cover of a university student and while that cover helps for legal matters, it earns him the ire of the locals. They believe he’s going to kill their logging industry by finding a rare plant or animal and turning the land into a nature preserve. It’s a reasonable fear since logging is the only industry keeping the town afloat.
There’s a great conflict wound up into all of this and the movie’s best moments come from watching David quietly set his traps, make notes on his map, and try to deduce the tiger’s location all while having the sneaking suspicion thathe’s the one being hunted. Nettheim may not have understood that when you have Willem Dafoe, an actor who can hold the screen even if he’s the only one on it, you don’t need to throw his character into a tired and unrealistic family drama.
David is put up to stay with a local family comprised of adorable children Sass (Morgana Davies), her mute little brother, and their catatonic mother Lucy (Frances O’Connor). The movie opens with the obvious assertion that David is alone in the world. But The Hunter desperately feels the need to put him into the role of surrogate father and husband. It’s a movie almost completely separate from the one about hunting and it’s also a far weaker one. The film reminds us that nothing melts an icy heart faster than the innocence of children even though there father went missing and their mother is drugged up and in bed all day.
Because the movie cares more about David as replacement husband/father, there’s no time to gradually build his relationship with his host family. He’s a little cold to the kids in their first few scenes together, but then he sees they’re alright so he goes to wake up their mother. He pulls her out of bed and then proceeds to bathe her as the kids help. Granted, the bathing isn’t sensual and it comes off as something done more for hygiene than anything else, but the simple truth remains: David takes a drugged-up woman he’s never spoken to out of her bed, strips her naked, and proceeds to give her a bath. That’s weird and it’s unbelievable that after Lucy sobers up she’s grateful to David rather than conflicted or upset about the event.
The attempt to force the new father identity gets downright creepy later in the film when he’s taking a bath and the kids, who are also naked, hop in with him because they don’t want to let the hot water go to waste. If you are a man, and you are naked in a bath, and kids that aren’t yours hop in the bath with you, you immediately get out of the bath, towel up, and leave the room. You don’t tell the kids to get out of the bath (as David does) and you don’t try to explain to them how strange it would look if their mother walked in (as David does). It’s as if Nettheim thought, “We really need David to be the surrogate father/husband and there’s no time to second guess how this is going to happen.”
Pursing this simplistic and maudlin plotline causes The Hunter to forget everything that makes it special. It would be far more interesting to see how a man confronts his loneliness and identity in the wilderness as both the hunter and the hunted than to see how no man is truly an island if he has a warm bath and the love of someone else’s wife and kids.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far: