At the start of the film we meet Martin David (Dafoe) as he wants for a contact in a swank European hotel. We can tell that there's something shady about Martin – he seems to be some kind of highly skilled mercenary. Martin's contact tells him that he's going to be working for a company called Red Leaf (a nicely menacing, vaguely Crichtonian name for a faceless corporate superpower) to hunt down and kill the Tasmanian tiger (the reason Red Leaf wants the tiger is never made clear, although another character alludes to a special toxin in the animal's saliva). Apparently there have been some substantiated reports of the tiger near a small logging village and it's David's job to hunt and kill the beast (his middleman shows him a case where he can store its organs, skin, blood, etc.). It's a horrifying concept – that this operative is going to travel to Tasmania to send an exotic creature back to extinction, but for David, it's business as usual.
Once Martin does get into the wilderness, the movie takes on a still eeriness, with whole sequences of him just looking around and walking through the untamed landscape of Tasmania. It's beautiful stuff, and works a discomforting spell on you. As the meditative and unnerving movie goes along, things become knottier and more complicated. Dafoe's David becomes emotionally attached to the children and takes it upon himself to help get Lucy straight (which results in much flirting) and fix the house up. He starts spending as much time in the dilapidated ranch house as he does in the brush, doing his job. And there are signs that things are not alright at home, either: Bike (who doesn't speak), brings him a drawing he did of the Tasmanian tiger (possibly a first-hand drawing, we're never quite sure), and David flips the paper around and sees that Bike has scribbled his doodle on the back of an envelope embossed with the Red Leaf logo. It appears Lucy's husband went into the brush looking for the same thing David did, and never came back…
One issue however, for all its atmospherics and mood, is a lack of true emotional glue or investment in Dafoe's character's story. He contradictorily betrays his nature-spirit in the end (though maybe not his true mercenarial manner) and a denouement hinting at a future as a parent rings false. It looks pretty and it's disquieting, but the picture's depth doesn't go very far beyond that.
"The Hunter" probably won't impress fans of more meat-and-potatoes thrillers. It's too sad, too ethereal, too strange. But that doesn't mean it's any less powerful. Admittedly, the film's complicated climax, while disappointing from a spiritual point of view, is heartbreakingly tragic and ensures that the movie lingers in the mind, like some low-lying Tasmanian fog. And thanks to Dafoe's solid performance, you actually feel sympathy for a hunter so skilled he has the power to single-handedly send a beloved and mysterious creature back to the annals of history. As mysterious and alluring as the Tasmanian tiger is, Dafoe creates a character that's just as compelling. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from SXSW.