Willem Dafoe doesn’t get enough roles that allow him showcase his diverse talents, whether it’s his reputation as a top-notch character actor or his willingness to take risks with edgy material.
So it’s no surprise that Dafoe’s efforts elevate The Hunter, a taut if uneven Australian drama that works both as an intimate character study and as a primal man-against-nature thriller.
Sometimes the disparate elements in the script don’t coalesce into an emotionally satisfying whole, but it’s still a compelling portrait of a man whose life of isolation often mirrors that of his prey.
Dafoe plays Martin, a no-nonsense mercenary hired by a European biotech firm that wants the genetic material from a rare tiger in Tasmania. His mission is secret, forcing Martin to pose as a scientist once he arrives on the island.
Upon arrival on the island, he is branded as an unwanted intruder by the locals, causing him to eventually find lodging in a farmhouse occupied by a troubled mother (Frances O’Connor) and her two small children.
Martin reluctantly bonds with the family but remains a target for a neighbor (Sam Neill) and others who don’t want him there for reasons that remain cloudy. As the hunter becomes the hunted, Martin’s mission becomes secondary to his survival instincts.
Like its central character, The Hunter is best when it’s alone with nature, chronicling Martin’s resourcefulness and determination as he meticulously sets his traps, casually tears apart his latest kill, or patiently constructs his campsites.
Such scenes are skillfully captured amid the rustic Tasmanian wilderness by director Daniel Nettheim, a veteran of Australian television making his feature debut, and cinematographer Robert Humphreys (Opal Dream).
Dafoe plays a character whose emotions are very internalized and whose personality is as rugged as the terrain. His performance is created largely through facial expressions and body language rather than traditional dialogue.
Unfortunately, Dafoe and his character deserve a better screenplay than the one from Alice Addison, adapted from a novel by filmmaker Julia Leigh, which unsuccessfully tries to combine elements involving a broken family, corporate greed and environmental preservation.
The script really takes a tumble in the final reel that includes a wobbly ending. But even if his character’s transformation isn’t fully convincing, Dafoe’s performance is no less commanding.
Rated R, 101 minutes.