Willem Dafoe is one of those actors that is so recognizable that just a glimpse of his sharply-lined face and jaw or the soothing (yet dangerous) sound of his voice can flood your mind with memories of myriad great films: specifically, one of his wonderful first roles in Platoon, his cult-like-status character in The Boondock Saints, or his absolutely brutal turn in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. It's easy to forget--what with all the small, bit character roles that Dafoe is so great at (and the fact that he's been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars instead of Best Actor)--that Willem can carry an entire film on his own shoulders. He does so in The Hunter, an interesting and weird little Australian film that clearly showcases Dafoe's ability to captivate an audience. Although the plot is somewhat muddled and occasionally predictable, The Hunter (much like another very solid 2012 film, The Grey) relies on its solitude-enveloped performances and incredible wilderness cinematography to tell a story about hunting and human survival.
There used to be an animal called the Tasmanian Tiger. For real. Check it out, HERE. They have thought to be extinct since 1936, and before that they mostly inhabited the grasslands and wetlands of continental Australia. The Hunter revolves around this animal: Martin (Willem Dafoe) is a mercenary with good aim and better instincts. He gets hired by a mysterious company to try and track down this elusive, thought-to-be-extinct creature, to harvest its organs and genetic material for experiments. He poses as a scientist and travels to Tasmania, where he gets set up with a family while he conducts his under-the-radar hunting. But this family has some dark secrets: two young kids, Sass and Bike, run around without supervision as their mother, Lucy, is laid up in bed, addicted to prescription medication. The father, Jarrah, has been missing for a significant amount of time. He may or may not have been looking for information on the same dangerous, phantom animal up in the dark woods.
The plot gets even thicker as The Hunter's run time moves along: the locals don't take too kindly to a "foreigner" coming into town, shacking up with a family and conducting mysterious business in the treacherous forest. Things only get much tougher for Martin as he inches closer and closer to loving his host family. A decision will have to be made: will Martin be able to overcome the ever-growing dangers of the angry town locals? Should Martin continue his research in the hazardous landscape? And even if he found the extremely elusive Tasmanian Tiger, does Martin have to intestinal fortitude to murder it for research?
The Hunter looks incredible. The entire film was shot on location in Tasmania, and much of it was shot in the beautiful Central Plateau Conservation Area and the Upper Florentine Valley. The landscape is a character of its own, with plenty of gorgeous cliffs and threatening old-growth forests permeating from each scene. It's a thought-provoking movie, with plenty of questions about ethics, environmental protection, and survival. Yes, the plot is occasionally predictable, and the townsfolk have a Straw Dogs-ish staleness, but the slow-burn satisfaction of Dafoe's understated performance raises it above most any typical survival thriller.
(Available on Netflix Instant Watch)