While watching The Hunter, which was adapted from a novel of the same title by Australian writer Julia Leigh, I found myself drawing parallels to The American, which I reviewed here last year. On the surface, both would appear to offer the promise of some action or thriller movie excitement, but are actually slow-moving yet engaging films, featuring loner protagonists conflicted by their fundamentally similar occupations who seem to be yearning for a meaningful human connection, in stories set amongst picturesque backdrops.
The Hunter star Willem Dafoe doesn't have the good looks or charm (muted as it was) that George Clooney had going for him in The American. In fact, Dafoe's gaunt cheekbones, creased face, and haunted eyes are actually a physical benefit to his mysterious character, Martin David. Martin is deliberately given little to no backstory; all we know is he's a mercenary-for-hire who you know has been through the proverbial shit. He's hired by a biotech company to track down a Tasmanian tiger allegedly spotted in the Australian wilderness, even though the species is thought to have gone extinct in the 1930s. The company seeks tissue samples from the animal for vague reasons, but they're a multinational corporation, so you know those reasons are probably nefarious. Martin's home base for the job sets him up at the cabin of a woman named Lucy Armstrong (played by Frances O'Connor) and her two kids. Lucy is a wreck, incapacitated by an excess of anti-depressant medication that's supposed to be helping her deal with the absence of her missing (and presumed dead) husband. Sam Neill has a small role as a friend of the family and Martin's somewhat suspicious local contact.
The Hunter, like The American, is one of those quiet films that succeeds or fails almost exclusively on the strength of the lead actor's performance and Dafoe, possessing a resume filled with interesting and unpredictable career choices on which The Hunter fits right in, certainly does his share of heavy lifting here. Dafoe is never less than intriguing to watch, even when the storyline occasionally spins its wheels and strains credulity. Martin's burgeoning relationship with Lucy and her kids plays a significant part in the film, but rings somewhat false, even though they do manage to produce more than a few nice moments together. For someone presented as a lone wolf-type of character, he falls just a little too easily and willingly into the family's vacant male figure position. One scene in particular, which prominently features the usage of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" (the licensing rights probably ate up half of the independent film's small budget), is cringe-inducingly bad, as the screenplay and director Daniel Nettheim step into lazy Hollywood sap territory. When Martin isn't helping to pick up the pieces of the Armstrong's lives, he's off in the lush, rugged Tasmanian wilderness (spectacularly captured by Nettheim) looking for his perhaps-mythical prey, with Dafoe convincingly selling Martin's veteran tracking and survival skills. There's a methodical tedium that goes along with Martin's work and the film doesn't shy away from showing some of it, which is in keeping with the leisurely pace that The Hunter maintains throughout its duration.
"Leisurely pace" may be an understatement for a lot of viewers, who will likely find The Hunter painfully slow and overly sparse in both its makeup and amount of tension. Add in the film's uneven ending and, frankly, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. At the conclusion of The Hunter, I found myself fairly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, not unlike my experience with The American. In the past, there's been plenty of other movies sharing some those aforementioned factors and flaws that I've hated, oftentimes to the point where I've bailed out early. An appealing premise and Dafoe's impressive performance elevates The Hunter substantially above such forgettable fare, though.