There’s a scene in “The Hunter” when Martin (Willem Dafoe), the titular gunman, helps a family string loudspeakers from a giant tree near their Tasmanian home before letting music blast through the countryside. It’s a strangely beautiful moment, and it says plenty about the movie and its interests: “The Hunter” is deeply attuned to the music of the planet, and lush with environmental metaphor.
Long stretches feature little or no dialogue, replaced instead with the crackle and song of the woods. Director Daniel Nettheim frequently frames a tiny Mr. Dafoe against grand natural backdrops. The state of the natural world provides a sort of chorus to the main story, changing with the movie’s mood, commenting on the action with heavenly rays of sunshine or foul grey storms. Staged as a brooding, conspiratorial thriller, this quiet, intense, and surprisingly affecting movie is more of a naturalistic tone poem. The scenery isn’t merely the background; it’s the subject.
“The Hunter” belongs to a certain brand of low-budget hit man pictures, like Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control” and Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” that deal more in mood and mystery than high-octane thrills or intricate plot twists.
As Martin, Mr. Dafoe plays a mercenary sent to Tasmania by a mysterious biotech company to hunt down a mythical creature: the Tasmanian tiger. Thought to be extinct by most, there are rumors that one, and perhaps only one, still lives. Martin’s job is to find it, kill it, and bring back DNA samples that can be used in the creation of military-grade bioweaponry.
This is grade-D corporate conspiracy filler, quickly dispensed with and designed mostly to give some narrative shape to the movie’s real interest: Martin’s journey into nature. Mr. Dafoe’s Martin resembles an animal assassin more than a typical sport hunter. Mr. Nettheim spends considerable time detailing his methodology — making traps, marking maps, his hands always moving with the precision of a skilled crafstman.
Even when framed against the vastness of the natural world, Mr. Dafoe looms large, like a predator in his element. With his gnarled, bony skull, oversized forehead, and sunken-in eyes, he resembles a sort of ancient Cro-Magnon man, a creature devolved into his primal self. He’s bushy, too, with a rusty beard streaked in gray, and splotchy skin, pocked and discolored as if to match the landscapes.
Does this ferocious animal have a human side, too? That’s the question posed by the movie’s other thread, which follows Martin’s developing relationship with a fatherless local family. Some of the dialogue in these scenes plays with all the subtlety of an elbow to the ribs, like when one of the characters wonders if the tiger is “the last one — alone; just hunting and killing and waiting to die.” The comparison between Martin and his prey would’ve been far more effective if left unspoken.
Mr. Nettheim is clearly less comfortable with scenes of human interaction than with those that depict a solitary man in nature. Like Martin, the movie seems out of its element whenever it’s forced to deal with people.
TITLE: “The Hunter”
CREDITS: Directed by Daniel Nettheim, screenplay by Alice Addison adapted from the novel by Julia Leigh
RATING: R for language and violence
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS