It’s possible to think of The Hunter as a thriller diluted by atmosphere or a mood piece disrupted by plot, but for much of the film’s length, director Daniel Nettheim successfully pitches camp in the razor-thin overlap between the two. Willem Dafoe, who brings brooding storm clouds with him wherever he goes, plays a hazily defined mercenary who takes on a pharmaceutical company’s assignment to hunt down the purportedly extinct Tasmanian tiger. That, naturally, means heading to Tasmania, whose untouched terrain proves more hospitable than some of the locals. Badly (and somewhat implausibly, given his profession) fumbling his first encounter with a handful of outlander-hating rednecks, Dafoe’s “greenie” becomes the target of periodic, unpredictable harassment, which is mostly harmless, but suggests the potential for something far more threatening.
As Dafoe mounts his excursions into the wilderness, searching for any sign of his inconceivably rare prey, The Hunter cuts loose from its plot, which is all to the good. The movie’s most engrossing sequences are wordless and often near-silent, simply Dafoe negotiating his environment, making traps from wound wire and bent branches and gutting the small animals he catches for further study. The interactions are also terse at his temporary home base, a rented room in the house of a family whose patriarch disappeared some months before. Mom Frances O’Connor emerges from her bedroom only briefly, leaving Dafoe to converse with her mute son.
Whether the boy’s inability to speak is congenital or a response to his father’s absence is never explained, because his place is almost purely archetypal. It’s tempting to trace the movie’s problems back to the source novel by Julia Leigh, whose 2011 film Sleeping Beauty shows a fatal weakness for undigested symbolism, especially once the exigencies of drama take hold in the home stretch. When nothing’s happening, The Hunter is engrossing. Dafoe invests every action with a sense of purpose (not, thankfully, the same thing as meaning), to the extent that viewers would likely turn up to watch him peel potatoes, Jeanne Dielman-style. But the movie fumbles badly when it’s time to turn those actions toward resolution, forcing an ending that seems both arbitrary and cruel. At under 80 minutes, the movie is terse enough that it could do without trumped-up events.