Judge Gordon Sullivan never found the stuffed tiger he was looking for. Some kid named Calvin got it.
Our review of The Hunter (1980), published August 31st, 2001, is also available.
Some mysteries should never be solved.
The terms "arthouse" and "thriller" don't often go together. In fact, it's so rare that when the 2011 film Drive was released, a woman sued for false advertising: the trailer made the film look more thriller than arthouse, and she was disappointed by the end product. No one is going to levy those charges against 2011 other arthouse thriller, The Hunter. The slow, contemplative trailer for this feature is heavy on atmosphere and the face of star Willem Dafoe; the fact that it's a hunting film with a definite endgame in mind is downplayed. It's not a film for everyone, but it is a master class in film acting and a fascinating portrait of an under-seen portion of the world.
Facts of the Case
In 1936, the Tazmanian Tiger was declared extinct, but in the remote woods of Tasmania (an island off the coast of Australia), sightings have been reported for decades. Willem Dafoe plays Martin, a hunter sent by a mysterious company to find the tiger. Not wanting the locals to know of his true intentions, Martin poses as a researcher, which raises the hackles of the locals, who think that Martin is a researcher out to attack the only viable local industry, logging. Finding all the traditional inns closed to him, Martin stays with Lucy (Frances O'Connor, Mansfield Park), a pill addict who lost her husband to a quest for the tiger. As Martin tracks the tiger, he grows closer to Lucy and her children, even as the town grows more suspicious of his intentions.
Willem Dafoe is the big attraction for The Hunter. His presence has always been magnetic, from the early days of Platoon to the time they put him in a mask and prosthetics for Spider-man. However, he's a character actor. Although he's had leading roles in his career, he rarely gets called on to carry a picture essentially solo. Sure, he's essential for a film like Shadow of the Vampire, but for the vast majority of The Hunter he's center stage; the film literally does not exist without him. Almost as significantly, hunting is a silent occupation, so he has to carry the film with few words. Luckily for us, he's not only a magnetic presence but a fantastic actor. We watch as his time in Tasmania slowly starts to eat away at his resolve to find the tiger and see the emotional burden of keeping secrets grows heavier.
The second great thing about The Hunter is the way it weaves its two stories. On one level, it's about Martin's hunt, and on another it's about Martin opening up with Lucy and her family. The two stories seem unrelated, but as the film goes on, they're more and more connected. I don't want to give things away, but their joint resolution is significant. Perhaps more importantly, The Hunter has an undertone of significance. What could have been a film about a lone hunter and a single family is instead connected to the economic state of Tasmania, and perhaps makes a comment on the economy of the world.
Finally, there's Tasmania itself. This isn't quite Peter Jackson filming New Zealand, but The Hunter's cinematography makes the island look both menacing and inviting at the same time. Since much of the film takes place outdoors, the setting is important. Between the natural beauty of the landscape and the well-done cinematography, The Hunter turns Tasmania into a character all of its own.
Though the film is a bit of a slow burn, The Hunter (Blu-ray) explodes. The 2.35:1 AVC-encoded transfer replicates the film's dark and moody atmosphere. Detail can be a bit sparse (especially early on), and noise is occasionally a problem, but for the most part, this is an excellent transfer. The muted color scheme is well-saturated, and close-ups show an impressive amount of detail. The all-important black levels are solid throughout the film and remain consistent. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is impressively immersive. Ambient sounds (including wind and animal noise) fill the surrounds, while the film's dialogue comes through cleanly in the center channel. The film's score is well-balanced and the amount of low end is surprisingly good.
The film's extras are equally impressive. They kick off with a commentary by director Daniel Nettheim and producer Vincent Sheehan. The pair spend most of their time talking technical stuff, like casting and production rather than focusing on the film's themes. It's not the most exciting track, but it does consistently offer info about the film. Then, we get a 30-minute collection of four featurettes that focus on the making of the film. They're the usual mix of production footage and cast and crew interviews. There are also seven deleted scenes, the highlight of which is more development of Sam Neill's character, and all seven scenes have optional director's commentary. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Hunter is not an exciting film about a guy chasing what we traditionally think of as a tiger. This isn't even a film like The Ghost and the Darkness, where traditional drama and suspense are mixed together liberally. No, The Hunter feels like an indie/arthouse flick that just happens to be about a guy with a gun. Those who don't like the focus on character and the sometimes glacial pace of arthouse-style pics should probably avoid this one as well. I can also see some people complaining that the hunting scenes and the family scenes aren't as well integrated as they could be…there are definitely moments where jumping from one to the other can be jarring. That's probably intentional, but it's not an effect everyone will appreciate.
The Hunter demonstrates quite handily that Willem Dafoe is a national treasure. Without even speaking he can summon up atmosphere and interest as if from thin air. Though not everyone will be won over by The Hunter's charms, viewers will to sit through a slower plot will be treated to excellent performances, amazing landscapes, and a satisfying story.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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