by Scott Mendelson
The Hunter is, at its core, a probing character study of a man sent on a mission to do something most of us would consider unthinkable. At its best, it is an eerily quiet portrait and an occasionally haunting drama. Alas, it gets tripped up in outside complications, adding melodrama and apparent corporate conspiracy to its plot when its frankly unneeded. But Willem Dafoe delivers a fine star turn, arguably portraying the kind of rugged man-of-action he thought we would end up playing after Clear and Present Danger was released back in 1994 (as some may recall, most of John Clark's action beats ended up on the cutting room floor, and no spin-off ever materialized from Tom Clancy's Clark-centric novels). The needless complications are what prevents a good film from being great, while an uncommonly powerful ending stirs the soul even while leaving crucial moral questions unanswered.
Directed by Daniel Nettheim and based on the novel by Julia Leigh, the picture concerns Dafoe as Martin David, a mercenary sent to Tasmania to kill the last remaining tiger in its specific species. The insidiously-named Red Leaf corporation never tells us why this tiger must be killed, but we can only assume it's for nefarious purposes. Mr. David accepts the assignment and finds himself lodging in a house occupied by a mother and her two children. Also on the scene is a mysterious local, played by Sam Neill with his usual unnerving malice. The highlight of the picture is what amounts to its core narrative, as Dafoe's hunter attempts to track down the tiger's cave and/or merely examines the environment where he's been set to kill one of its inhabitants. The film becomes bogged down and/or distracted by other subplots, such as the mother's (Frances O'Conner) dependency on medications and a feud of sorts between the local loggers and the environmental movement, a feud that may or may not have something to do with the fate of O'Conner's missing husband.
While these subplots do pay off in their respective fashions, they serve mostly to needlessly give our anti-hero people to talk to and/or humans to help in order to contrast his seemingly cold-blooded nature and his cruel assignment. How at least one of these plots is resolved only increases annoyance, but to say much more would be a spoiler (highlight text for a hint: "women in refrigerators"). The acting is fine throughout and by all parties, and the picture builds to a genuinely shattering climax that both plays fair and doesn't let anyone off the moral hook. I can only presume that most of the subplots come from the original novel, but it still feels like a case where somebody was afraid that audiences would be turned off by the lead character unless he was given a young woman and some cute kids to look after.
The Hunter is a solid character study and a thoughtful moral thriller. I wish it trusted its primary story enough to withstand the need for padding, but what's there is relatively solid regardless. And the film once again reminds us of how underrated and undervalued Willem Dafoe is as an actor. When you're as good as he is as long as he's been, you start to get taken for granted. The Hunter is a showcase for its star, which for that purpose alone merits its recommendation.