Filmmakers have gotten a lot of mileage out of Willem Dafoe’s face over the years. With his sunken eyes, mischievously pointed features, and a smile that always suggests something is deeply wrong, whenever this guy is onscreen you know that bad things are going to happen no matter if he’s playing Jesus or the Green Goblin. Australian director Daniel Nettheim certainly takes full advantage of that fact in The Hunter, a thriller packed with suspense and tension, but lacking in payoff. Almost the entire movie is dedicated to Nettheim studying Dafoe’s pained expressions, and based on previous associations alone it suggests that violent tragedy is inevitable. The director’s 90 minutes of teasing certainly will give audiences reason to stay locked in their seats, it’s just a shame that he didn’t have a destination to make them feel as pleased about sticking through it.
Dafoe stars as an international animal hunting mercenary who’s hired to head out to Tasmania and track down what just might be the last Tasmanian Tiger on the planet. He’s sent out to the boonies on his assignment and shacks up with a broken family whose patriarch recently went missing while hunting the same creature. The mother (Francis O’Connor) is in a voluntary drug-induced coma that Dafoe has to wean her off of while playing Daddy for her kids. Sam Neil plays the contact that takes Dafoe out to the tiger’s stomping ground, but out of fear of persecution the hunter pretends he’s merely an academic researcher. Unemployed locals don’t take too kindly to Dafoe’s presence that they assume is costing them work and start tormenting him. At first this just means roadside name-calling, but soon they’re vandalizing his car and threatening his life. The only peace Dafoe gets comes from walking through the wilderness hunting his prey and it’s clear from the start that all the trouble bubbling up back in civilization will eventually lead to tragedy. The guy is carrying a gun at all times after all and according to the laws of moviemaking, he’s going to use it, god damn it.
That plot summary suggests more happens in the story than is actually the case. This deliberately spare and depressing movie relies more on the constant anticipation of action than actual action. With all the tension inherent in the subject matter as well as the way the filmmakers gradually position Dafoe’s character in the midst of a feud between local loggers and treehuggers with their own view of how the area should be persevered, there’s a sense that massive narrative or thematic twist will arrive to answer all dangling questions with an intellectual punch. Sadly, that moment never arrives. Things wrap up with a bloody twist, just not in a way that could be described as satisfying. Luridly daft and academically pretentious, it feels like a lot of wasted potential, but Nettheim finds a few ways to tie up the story and make it a less frustrating viewing experience.
What works in The Hunter is certainly strong enough to warrant a recommendation even if the movie never quite comes together. Dafoe is fantastic as always, underplaying the role while still remaining a consistently compelling screen presence. Without such an evocative lead, this could have been hard to sit through, but Dafoe carries the movie well. Sam Neill also pops up to do his usual Sam Neill thing, which is always a pleasure and it’s a shame he doesn’t appear onscreen more often these days. Aussie TV directing veteran Nettheim also shows terrific promise in his debut. What he lacks in storytelling polish he makes up for in style and atmosphere, elegantly wringing tension out of scenes that must have seemed like throwaway moments in the script. While it might feel somewhat unsatisfying overall, the first two thirds of The Hunter deliver enough suspense, mystery, ideas, and visual flare to keep your eyes locked on the screen. The main reason the film creates such an empty feeling is simply because that early material is so resonant. Eventually, this will probably be an intriguing debut for a filmmaker who returned with more focus later on. For now, it’s merely an inconsistent curiosity with some gorgeously cold cinematography and an impressive lead performance. That’s more than most movies can offer, it’s just a shame that The Hunter stumbles along to the finish line, preventing it from being something special.