“Must be very nice for you, not to need anyone”
I briefly thought novelist Julia Leigh invented the Thylacine aka Tasmanian Tiger. I’m from the other side of the planet so this oddly beautiful creature is completely new to me. Sadly the last of the species died in captivity in 1936. Though they resembled dogs they were actually marsupials and apparently timid around humans but white settlers hunted them to extinction due to erroneous fears they were a danger to livestock. There have been supposed sightings since but these are hearsay or come with the standard blurry footage which accompanies alleged sightings of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. The thylacine has become a myth and David Nettheim’s film uses it as the basis for a thriller which finds room for environmental concerns but never lectures the audience or takes the easy way out right down to its devastating finale.
Based on the 1999 novel by Julia Leigh there is a familiarity present in the genre aspects of the film but not in how they are executed. Anybody who saw Leigh’s own directorial debut Sleeping Beauty will know she likes ambiguity and protagonists whose behaviour is difficult to fathom. Willem Dafoe plays a mercenary who operates under the name Martin David. Hired by a pharmaceutical company to investigate a rumoured sighting of a thylacine Martin has been instructed to bring back skin and DNA samples before anybody else finds it. Posing as an academic researching the Tasmanian Devil Martin spends his time setting traps and tracking in the wilderness. The locals are suspicious of outsiders, most of them rely on the logging industry to make a living and their livelihoods threatened by the activities of environmental campaigners.
Though he would prefer to be alone Martin is forced to billet with a family. We know he will eventually let his guard drop and begin to care about them despite himself. The mother (Frances O’ Connor) is catatonic and lies doped up grieving for her husband Jarrah who has been missing for a year. The children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock) look after themselves though a neighbour Jack (Sam Neill) drops in occasionally. David reluctantly becomes a surrogate father whose presence in the house helps bring the family back together. Normally in films when hitmen begin to feel emotions it is the beginning of the end for them but Martin surprises himself by adapting to his new role. The boy in particular comes out of his shell and seems to have some knowledge about Jarrah’s work before he disappeared.
Dafoe’s hugely affecting turn matches his performance as another existential loner in Paul Schrader’s underrated Light Sleeper (1992). There are similarities with Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2011) which also deals with an ageing protagonist pondering his own mortality while battling against the elements. Like The Hunter that film was also marketed as an action thriller which proved deceptive but no doubt persuaded people to watch it. Both these films are about impermanence and the inevitability of death, about the landscape enduring while people or in this case whole species come and go. There is more than a touch of Peter Weir style mysticism about The Hunter, of something intangible being expressed with a great deal of subtlety. Nettheim and cinematographer Robert Humphreys frame Dafoe against this extraordinary wilderness and it is hard not to think people shouldn’t be in places like this at all.