You'd swear that a film titled "The Hunter" and starring Willem Dafoe would be some dark, mud-caked descent into the primal nature of man.
But in the taut Aussie thriller, directed by Daniel Nettheim, danger and mystery don't lie in the wild forests of Tasmania, where Dafoe is pursuing the last Tasmanian Tiger. It's the encroaching, corrupting modern world lurking on the fringes that's the real threat.
Dafoe plays a mercenary named Martin who's dispatched to the Australian isle by a biotech company called Red Leaf. The job, outlaid in Paris, is arranged like a hit.
He arrives in the area of rumored sightings under the guise of a researcher "from the university." Local Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) sets him up at a remote farmhouse where the father has recently gone missing, the mother, Lucy Armstrong (the striking redhead Frances O'Connor), is bedridden by grief and drugs, and the two young children (Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock) are curious of the newcomer.
Martin quickly finds that his normal habits of stealth anonymity and meticulous organization go wanting in such an environment. There's no power at the house, the children follow him even into the bathtub and the townspeople are immediately suspicious of him.
Martin has unwittingly walked into a battle between loggers and "greenies" - environmental activists seeking to keep the Tasmanian woods protected. The moments when Martin is alone hunting the tiger - setting traps, mostly - are far more peaceful and less complicated than his time at the house and in town.
But the disruptions are a good thing. Martin is subtly swayed by the naturalism of the Armstrongs, the beauty of Lucy and the tenderness of the children. The film's stark characterizations of violent, defensive loggers and the peaceful, friendly activists leave no room for confusion: "The Hunter" is with the greenies.
Now in his mid-50s, the wiry Dafoe is something like the movies' answer to Iggy Pop, just with better hair. He remains a captivating presence and most everything he does is interesting (including the flawed but intriguing recent release by Abel Ferrara: "4:44 Last Day on Earth").
"The Hunter" doesn't particularly test him, but Dafoe, who's in every scene of the film, easily dominates it. Like the lithe tiger he hunts, he's a lone wolf, surrounded by corporate and special interests and headed for extinction. (The Tasmanian Tiger has been extinct since the early 20th century.)
Nettheim, an Australian TV veteran making his first widely distributed feature film, keeps a brooding, controlled pace. Cinematographer Robert Humphrey beautifully captures the rawness of the Tasmanian brush. The entire film, which is based on the novel by Julia Leigh, has a pleasant, messy ruggedness.
While a sturdy, well-made thriller, "The Hunter" never quite catches its prey. Perhaps it depends too much on Dafoe's presence for depth. The leanness of "The Hunter," both praiseworthy and preventing real satisfaction, cuts both ways.
"The Hunter," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R for language and brief violence. Running time: 101 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.