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Movie Review: Willem Dafoe Brings Understated Intensity to THE HUNTER

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If nothing else, the eco-thriller The Hunter reminds viewers of Willem Dafoe’s powerful on-camera presence.  The Hunter isn’t technically a one-man show, but it often feels like one because of the attention Dafoe gets.  He plays Martin David, a mercenary hired to locate and kill the elusive Tasmanian Tiger, and much of the film simply records his process: the way he navigates unfamiliar terrain, his methods for improvising animal snares and traps, his stillness in the moments right before he makes a kill.  We spend so much time focusing on the minutia surrounding Martin that we perceive the movie from his subcutaneous level, which means Dafoe is able to mark huge emotional shifts through small, quiet moments.  There aren’t many actors who can command the screen with very little “acting,” and Dafoe’s work as Martin reminds viewers that this most mercurial of character actors also possesses the star power of a Humphrey Bogart or a George Clooney.

What proves surprising about The Hunter is how it marries the abstract moviemaking that Dafoe cultivates with a slightly more traditional narrative format.  In its broad strokes, The Hunter is a Western, and not just any Western – it’s Shane.  Like Alan Ladd from that earlier film, Dafoe is an enigmatic gunslinger whose violent travails find him making the acquaintance of devastated widow Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two young children (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock).  Lucy’s husband disappeared in the Tasmanian wilderness, leaving the family near-destitute, but Martin’s arrival has a bracing effect on both parties: he helps them crawl out of crippling poverty and depression, and they help bring out the tenderness under his hardened façade.

It’s all so f—king familiar, but it doesn’t feel that way; in adapting Julia Leigh’s novel of the same name, director Daniel Nettheim and writer Alice Addison do a nice job of underplaying the clichés.  Davies and Woodlock are far scruffier and more unusual than typical “cute” movie tykes (Davies swears like a sailor, and both kids insist on bathing with Martin despite his obvious discomfort at the prospect); Lucy remains vaguely broken, even after Martin breaks her anti-depressant addiction; and the two adults never consummate a romantic relationship – whatever feelings they might have for one another remain tantalizing undercurrents.

Most importantly, Dafoe never tips his hand.  We regard the impact the family has on him in purely visceral terms.  His tracking of the tiger loses its professional sheen – he grows more impulsive, more instinctive, and makes a major league blunder as a result.  He begins a silent side-mission, devoting many of his energies in the jungle to finding some trace of Lucy’s husband.  And he begins to assert his normally anonymous public image, particularly when he realizes that the locals surrounding Lucy and her kids (headed by Animal Kingdom‘s Sullivan Stapleton and a chillingly avuncular Sam Neill) harbor dangerous resentments towards the family.  None of these beats are especially unique, but since we process them through Dafoe’s wise, inscrutable persona, we experience them afresh.

In fact, this elliptical approach to formula is so satisfying that The Hunter dips slightly when it lets the air out from the sustained ambiguity.  During its middle half hour, Nettheim and Addison cultivate a mood of creeping uncertainty.  The more Martin investigates the events surrounding the Tasmanian Tiger, the less sense they make.  Is the creature really alive?  Was Lucy’s husband really after it for reasons of environmental conservation?  Does the locals’ enmity towards Martin spring from their xenophobia, or does it mask darker, more insidious motives?  For a little while, any of the possibilities associated with these questions could be true, and Martin’s hunt moves from the realm of Hemingway-esque odyssey to conspiracy thriller.

Alas, Nettheim all too readily gives up the ghost at the start of the third act, and The Hunter becomes more conventional thriller, with a clear villain, a shootout, and the comforting embrace of narrative resolution.  It’s a credit, though, to Nettheim, to Addison, to Dafoe, that the film still works as well as it does even when it stops surprising us.  We spend so much time with Martin that – slowly but surely – we begin to care about him.  By the end of The Hunter, we’ll follow him anywhere, through worlds known and unknown.

Magnolia’s Blu-ray looks phenomenal; working on 35mm, Nettheim and DP Robert Humphreys have created a visual palette that is as sharply textured and interesting as Dafoe’s protagonist.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is also a winner, with the rich, immersive wilderness sounds especially impressive.

The bonus supplements are few in number but awfully informative; there isn’t an ounce of fat to be found.  Nettheim and producer Vincent Sheehan provide a solid commentary track, though the wonderful, four-part making-of documentary delves into The Hunter‘s origins and production in a more tightly focused forum.  There are also six-or-so minutes of deleted scenes (with optional director commentary) and the theatrical trailer.

Much of The Hunter plays as a study in behavior; we get to watch Willem Dafoe’s tortured mercenary reveal himself through action instead of through exposition.  This process creates an immersive, gently elliptical viewing experience that maintains our interest even when the picture heads into more familiar waters.

The Hunter is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.