The premise of one man’s enigmatic hunt for one of nature’s most elusive beasts is a well-worn one. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick immediately springs to mind and there are evident shades of Ahab in Willem Dafoe’s Martin David, the focussed and determined protagonist of Daniel Nettheim’s adaptation of Julia Leigh’s 1999 novel The Hunter.
However, whereas Ahab was driven by revenge, Martin, the eponymous hunter is a controlled, detached mercenary, a veritable hired gun, in thrall to the dollar bill. Contracted by the shady military biotech firm Red Leaf, Martin is tasked with tracking down the supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger. With no questions asked, Martin sets out with Red Leaf’s clinical orders ringing in his ears; source blood, organs and tissue from the shadowy creature.
A foreboding tone pervades from the outset as motives are left uncertain and when Martin is afforded all the courtesy that an outsider arriving in the boondocks of Tasmania might expect, there’s a very palpable sense that there’s more to his quest than meets the eye. Hunkering down at the isolated home of catatonic single mum Lucy (Frances O’Connor), Martin is badgered by her mischievous daughter Sass (a superb Morgana Davies) into looking for her missing father Jarrah when he eventually ventures into the bush. What might have become of Jarrah is left deliberately ambiguous, indicative of Nettheim’s slow-burning script which consistently broaches questions without ever providing concrete answers.
As Martin descends into the thickets of the stunning Tasmanian wilds, beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Humphreys, he’s soon enveloped in splendid and breathtaking isolation. This is very much man vs. nature and Dafoe is evidently in his element, his rugged features betraying a thousand words with a single frown of his furrowed brow. It’s testament to Nettheim’s considered direction that the Tasmanian bush takes on a personality of its own, challenging and goading Martin every step of the way.
His hunt soon takes on an ethereal, almost wistful tone, as the always engaging narrative takes it time to develop, with sabotage, interference from the ‘company’ and the discovery that Lucy is effectively being dosed with medication by her duplicitous neighbour Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) deepening the mystery surrounding his hunt. Further complicating matters is a developing relationship with Lucy, Sass and her mute kid brother Bike (Finn Woodlock) that threatens to distract him from the job in hand.
Yet just as Martin harbours the belief that the unattainable prize of the tiger (Ahab’s white whale) remains tantalisingly out of reach, Lucy et al cling onto the hope that Jarrah might well be found, despite Martin’s realisation otherwise. It is this central tenet that sometimes the unknown should remain so that adds gravitas and solemnity to The Hunter, even more so given the shocking and highly emotive, albeit compassionate denouement.
Ultimately, Martin is merely a conflicted pawn at the behest of a megalithic corporation that will stop at nothing to get what it wants, his obsessive pursuit of the tiger a mere allegory for the incessant greed of man and our destructive effect on nature. However, his eventual actions serve as a powerful and pertinent reminder that individuals still harbour a degree of self-determination.
The Hunter is a measured and poignant study into the notion of the journeys, literal and figurative, that we all undertake and whereas Ahab single-mindedly sought out his legendary adversary, Martin’s path is more convoluted. Dafoe’s superb turn lends Martin a doggedness that masks an empathic humanity, whilst Nattheim’s minimalist screenplay and immersive direction ensures that Martin’s hunt is always fascinating. Davies shines amongst more experienced peers Neill and O’Connor, whilst Humphrey’s photography provides Martin’s tale with a spectacular backdrop. This is skilfully crafted, thoughtful fare, which in a year dominated by spandex clad superheroes is a welcome breath of fresh Tasmanian air.