If there’s one thing guaranteed to get me into the theatres it’s a film with big, dramatic scenery. Large cinema screens provide a superb window onto the landscapes of countries I have always longed to visit or, conversely, know next to nothing about. Sometimes the scenery can be a film’s only blessing (last year’s Wuthering Heights adaptation springs to mind) or it can provide the doorway into something else entirely (Brokeback Mountain for instance).
The Hunter, therefore, has my name written all over it. The star of the film may be Willem Dafoe but his ruggedness is challenged by that of his co-star, the perilously treacherous, sharp and cold Tasmanian landscape. It fills the widescreen as if the screen had been invented for it and while the film is quiet with human speech, it is full of the sounds of these massive woodlands and rocky hills, continually watered and frosted and baked.
The plot of The Hunter is simple – mercenary Martin (Defoe) is hired by a biotech company to seek out and kill a Tasmanian Tiger. Easier said than done when the animal is believed extinct and only exists in rumoured sightings. Martin follows the trail to the house of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor) and her two children Sass and Bike. Lucy’s husband is missing, having vanished into the trees on what we believe will probably be the same quest. Lucy herself is almost comatosed with tranquillisers and grief while her resourceful children run wild. One man keeps them in his eye, Jack Mundy (Sam Neill).
Martin is an isolated, quiet man. His contact with the world is through his keenly polished and efficient gun. He is fastidiously clean and strangely it is this trait of his that begins to chip at the barriers between himself and this withdrawn and wild family. He cleans the house, he even cleans Lucy, and through this he helps to bring her back to life, while her children alter something in him. It is actually rather beautiful to watch.
Scenes with the family go hand in hand with Martin’s quiet time in the wooded mountains, chasing trails and shadowy sightings, avoiding hostile loggers and leaving steel toothed traps.
The Hunter is a slow film because essentially it is the story of one man’s return to a life he had no idea he was missing. But it is much subtler than I make it sound. Events happen around him over which he learns he has little control and he is forced on the run in the dangerous and cold open but, for once, he doesn’t want to run away from other people, he wants to run towards them. It is extremely moving.
The cost, though, is high. The mystery of the Tasmanian Tiger parallels Martin’s search for life and his clutching of it when it is at its most ephemeral.
The cinematography, music and acting are superb and they will carry you along. However, there is no doubt that the story itself is a painful one and at the end of it I was in quite a state. But then this is one of the things I ask of a memorable film: entertain me, amaze me but also test me. The film also proved without doubt that Willem Dafoe is a charismatic actor of the first order who can wrap a film around him.
The Hunter hasn’t had a wide release and so I would urge you to seek it out on DVD. I’d urge you to have a strong single malt by your hand to accompany it.