In their 2006 book "Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger," authors Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, then researchers at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, talked about becoming obsessed with a stuffed Tasmanian Tiger that they would walk by every day in the museum. It became "something akin to amorous fervor," and eventually they decided to take a trip to Tasmania to see if the tiger, which officially became extinct in 1936 when the lone survivor died at the Hobart Zoo, still existed, somewhere in the wild. It's the kind of mysterious animal – lithe, beautiful, angular – that inspires this kind of devotion, even decades after its extinction. And it's this kind of nearly mythic eeriness that seeps into "The Hunter," Daniel Nettheim's dark and deeply haunting film based on the novel by Julia Leigh, about a man (Willem Dafoe) obsessed with finding the tiger, no matter the cost.
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.
When he gets down to Tasmania, he visits the house where he's supposed to be staying – the mother Lucy (Frances O'Connor) is heavily medicated and mostly incapacitated, while her two adorable children Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock) scamper around without a working generator or hot water. Martin is driven around town by a kindly local named Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), who explains that Lucy's husband went into the brush several months before (the same brush where he's headed) and never came back out. Almost from minute one there's a palpable sense of dread, and very quickly we realize the stakes – the locals don't like an American in their town (one of them played by "Animal Kingdom" star Sullivan Stapleton), there's something decidedly off about Mindy, and the local environmentalists, ostensibly in town to picket the loggers, become hostile when they fear David (posing as a university researcher doing work on Tasmanian devils) will be using cruel traps and snares (which are illegal in Tasmania). There's danger around every corner, and Martin hasn't even made it into the wilderness yet.
Once Martin does get into the wilderness, the movie takes on a still sort of eeriness, with whole sequences of him just looking around and walking through the untamed landscape of Tasmania. It's beautiful stuff, and works a kind of 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 than 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. Lucy's husband went into the brush looking for the same thing David did, and never came back…
Things become more uncomfortable for David, with both the townspeople and the environmentalists becoming more hostile (there's an amazing, tiny moment where he finds a mangled trap hanging from a tree) and he starts to feel that there are multiple agents being sent down to Tasmania to do his job. The tension starts piling on, paranoia begins to set in, and the gorgeous on-location photography of Robert Humphreys that emphasizes the quiet mysticism and weirdness of Tasmania's terrain and wildlife, starts to play up the danger as much as the beauty (this aspect is aided by the unobtrusively atmospheric score by Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira and Matteo Zingales). The movie eventually becomes less a thriller than a meditation on loss and memory – the closer Dafoe gets to the tiger, the more things become blurry and opaque. Even when he seems to be closing in, the tiger remains existentially elusive.
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 movie's complicated climax, while disappointing from a spiritual point of view, is heartbreakingly tragic and ensures that the movie lingers, 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, Dafoe does creates a character that's just as compelling. [B+]