Each week on “Unknown Pleasures,” Jake recommends a film whose reputation has fallen to the wayside, and has since become underseen, underrated, or undervalued. This week, it’s David Nettheim's The Hunter.
As an actor, Willem Dafoe has enjoyed an exceptionally strong film career. Over three decades of work, he has continuously forged a path to become one of our finest working performers, all while never succumbing to the limelight. Although his striking facial features and low, gravelly voice often lead him to be cast in villainous roles, Dafoe’s gravitas and commitment to his craft can, at best, elevate a great film to an excellent one (Platoon, The Last Temptation of Christ), or, at worst, make an atrocious film watchable (The Boondock Saints). With The Hunter, Dafoe’s talents are put to the ultimate test in this existential eco-thriller that asks him to carry an entire film in the wilds of Tasmania. A quietly affecting and thoroughly engrossing feature, The Hunter is a superb feature from director David Nettheim, made all the more better by Dafoe’s superlative and understated performance.
Dafoe plays the titular hunter, Martin David, a mercenary tasked by a shadowy pharmaceutical company to track and kill the last remaining Thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger, and collect DNA samples from the animal for purposes not made immediately clear. To conduct his research, Martin acquires a room in the home of Lucy (Frances O’Connor), a woman who has lost her husband on a recent hunting expedition (not unlike Martin’s) and spends her days doped up on sleeping medications in her bedroom. Lucy has two children: precocious and gregarious daughter Sass, and mute son Bike, the latter of whom takes a fondness to Martin and comprehends the true nature of his visit (Martin poses as a biology professor to throw off any local inquiries about his mission). Martin also receives assistance from Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a local tracker who has been watching over Lucy in her husband’s absence. As Martin’s quest is met with encroaching conflict from a local logging company, he finds himself drawn to Lucy and her family, balancing paternal duties with his secretive operation.
Much like last year’s The Revenant, The Hunter could have easily devolved into a generic survival thriller, pinning a fierce battle of man vs. nature against harsh elements and violent encounters. Mercifully, Nettheim (working from a screenplay Alice Addison, itself based on a novel by Julia Leigh, who is also a filmmaker) elects a gentler approach, opting to observe a man burdened with the duty of eliminating a rare and exotic species from the planet. Characterization is the key here. When we’re introduced to Martin he’s presented as private individual with meticulous habits and refined tastes (for instance, he listens to opera music while he bathes). He’s a stoic man who prefers to walk the path of a lone wolf, not out of any particular disdain for society, but because it’s simply a more efficient lifestyle. Nettheim sells these details wonderfully, aided in part by the tremendous efforts of Dafoe and his terrifically restrained performance.
Time spent alone with Martin in the Tasmanian wilderness takes on a bulk of the proceedings, patiently following his journey to seek out the Thylacine’s existence and eradicate it for good. Nettheim is at his best during these moments, expertly presenting Martin as an expert hunter with workmanlike tendencies and professional orderliness, capable of setting complicated traps and hunting food to fend for himself. These sequences outdoors are phenomenal, and cinematography by Robert Humphreys is staggeringly beautiful, making the most out of lush forest locations and breathtaking landscape shots.
There’s also an emotional arc to be had with Lucy and her kids, finding Martin’s technical prowess monumental in restoring harmony to her home. Consider this scene, wherein Martin fixes a broken generator and restores power to the house, which prompts a vinyl of Bruce Springsteen (or “the Boss,” as Sass calls him) to play on the soundtrack and wakes Lucy from her slumber. As Martin celebrates with the children, Lucy, believing him to be her returning husband, embraces him, only then to become stunned to find that he is a complete stranger. It’s a powerful and heart-rending sequence, and makes up the entire emotional core of the film:
The Hunter reaches a satisfying ending, delivering a haunting payoff for both Martin’s quest and Lucy’s family. Some viewers may wish to scoff at the minimalist narrative, but if 100 minutes of Willem Dafoe setting traps in the forest sounds as enticing for you as it does for me then this is your Christmas morning.
The Hunter is currently available to stream on Netflix.