SXSW 2012: Solid, Slow Burn Thriller 'The Hunter' Speaks Volumes
by Jeremy Kirk
March 13, 2012
What would it be like to be the last of a species in the world, especially a world that scours the planet for rarities? It would be a threatened life, always on the move, even more so a rare creature living in the wild. That's just one of the questions raised in Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter, a haunting yet balanced film with the vibe of The Edge and precision of The American. With a stunning performance by one of today's best actors, it transcends its slow burn, a touch slower than necessary, to become a top-notch thriller, one that thankfully has something important to say. It's anything but flawless, but, then again, the rarities in the world are hardly ever flawless.
Willem Dafoe, that gargoyle God of acting—call it hyperbole, but that makes sense to me—stars as Martin David, a hunter hired by a biotech company to track down the last, surviving Tasmanian Tiger. At the top of his field, Martin is a man of precision, respectful of those things he's hunting and always focused. That is, until he begins to know the woman and two children with whom he's staying. Before long, Martin uncovers the people in the area where the Tiger was supposedly seen are not what they appear, and he begins a mystery to uncover the truth behind the town and the legendary creature some call a myth. Here's where the back of the DVD case might say something like "the hunter becomes the hunted", but this isn't a DVD case.
Daniel Nettheim directs the film with an even hand, giving us enough, forceful beats to create a peak-and-valley structure. The Hunter is a slow burn film, to be exact. Until the last half, the film's high points in terms of intensity are not very high, and the low points are exceedingly low. We understand the connection Nettheim and screenwriter Alice Addison—the film is based on a novel by Julia Leigh—are making between Martin and this family, particularly the silent boy who may or may not have seen the Tiger. However, sequences of Martin being the handyman around their home begin to take their toll.
Fortunately, those moments, too many as they are, are necessary for when Martin is out in the wild, setting traps, tracking the creature, and being the ever-exact hunter that he is. Dafoe shines brightest in these moments, the look of focus rising from deep within the cracks in the actor's face. It's an emotion few can pull off, that look of intensity without being intimidating, the casual way the character makes us fully aware he's the best at what he does. Dafoe's balance between this and the tenderness he finds in the family is a thing of beauty. It's a rare creature in of itself to find an actor this consistently solid.
Nettheim's film rises back up in the third act, the resolution to the mystery somewhat predictable but spotted with enough suspense to keep the forward momentum from ever losing steam. Martin finds what he's been looking for, but that doesn't exactly mean what you might think it means. The Hunter is a film about those rare creatures of the world, the threat that comes into their lives from people who want what they have, and the hunters who seek them out. More importantly, it's about those hunters who respect their prey, who wince ever so slightly every time they pull the trigger. Sometimes their movement is so fluid and precise, you don't even notice the flinch, but that human reaction is what keeps the unique beauties of the world from feeling danger every day of their lives. Human reaction can kill, and it can love. Both might be just as powerful.
Jeremy's SXSW Rating: 8 out of 10