Wednesday 21 March 2018

Hunter traps a poignant performance

Paul Whitington

film of the week

the hunter (15A, limited release, 102 minutes)

Director: Daniel Nettheim Stars: Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O'Connor, Morgana Davies


Hunter traps a poignant performance

What nihilistic morons the European explorers of the 19th century were. Their first instinct on arriving in virgin territory seems to have been to subdue the locals by all means necessary before slaughtering, stuffing and mounting any nearby animal.

When the British pitched up in Tasmania in 1803, among the extraordinary and unique species they found were the Tasmanian Devil, a rotund but fearsome marsupial predator, and the Thylacine, or the Tasmanian Tiger, a magnificent, striped marsupial that roamed the island's high country.

Not for long: in the 1830s the Van Diemen's Land Company introduced a bounty of a pound a head on dead thylacines, which were suspected of attacking chickens and sheep. By the early 20th century, sightings were extremely rare, and by the 1930s it had apparently been wiped out altogether.

But every now and then there are unconfirmed sightings of the creature on Tasmania's wild uplands, and this unusual and absorbing little film from Australian director Daniel Nettheim builds a story around one of them.

Willem Dafoe is Martin David, a hunter who arrives in Tasmania posing as an academic interested in the habits of Tasmanian Devils.

He's really a mercenary who's been hired by a military biotech company called Red Leaf to investigate a series of credible sightings of a Thylacine.

Red Leaf wants him to find the animal, kill it and harvest its organs for research and cloning.

Specifically, the company is interested in rumours that the Tasmanian Tigers had a venom in their bite that induced paralysis.

At first, Martin is not impressed with the lodgings arranged for him in the house of a local widow.

Lucy Armstrong (Frances O'Connor) lives with her two young children Sass and Bike in a permanent state of disarray. The children run wild and sleep on the sofa, and Lucy is heavily medicated and spends most of her time in bed.

She's fallen to bits since the disappearance of her beloved husband Jarrah the previous year.

He went missing while up on the highlands protesting against the logging of virgin forest, and it turns out that the Tasmanian Tiger sightings were reported by him.

Martin realises that his best hope of finding the animal is by following in Jarrah's footsteps, but he faces the hostile suspicion of locals, and the polite opposition of Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a nearby farmer who is protective of Lucy.

At first the hunter remains icily remote from Lucy, but as he delves deeper into the disappearance of her husband he begins to realise that all is not as it seems.

Filmed on location in the spectacular Tasmanian landscape, Nettheim's film is a nicely shot, well-paced and refreshingly cerebral thriller.

The sub-plot of the Thylacine and its plight is interesting: I didn't know much about Tasmanian Tigers beforehand, and their ghostly absence from the island's harsh but beautiful landscape gives this otherwise conventional enough thriller an added resonance.

Dafoe is a polished and charismatic performer: he approaches this role with a 'less is more' philosophy, and it works.

When not shooting and gutting things, Martin listens to classical music and is addicted to long soaks in the tub. He's a tightly coiled enigma who may or may not deserve our sympathies, and Dafoe keeps us guessing on that score.

The hunting sequences are beautifully filmed and move so slow they achieve an almost hypnotic quality. And while The Hunter's plot is perhaps ultimately a little thin on detail, it has a gritty believability and a poignant late twist.

Most poignant of all, though, are the grainy archive shots of the last Thylacines pacing their tiny enclosures in bleak 1930s zoos, doomed creatures whose fate was sealed the moment European feet first stepped on Australian soil.

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