Wednesday 4 July 2012

Targets: "The Hunter"

The Hunter starts out like a throwback to the kind of artsy thriller that emerged from Australia in the 1970s, before Mad Max came along and blew the export market wide open. It's slow, lugubrious, rooted in the landscape and ideas of ecology - and Sam Neill's in it, too, just to be on the safe side. The red herring is that it's based on a novel by Julia Leigh, the writer-director of last year's Sleeping Beauty, though the projects are connected solely by their haze of abstraction, which seems as likely to turn off as many viewers as it pulls in. As with that earlier film, you may wonder what The Hunter is getting at, exactly.

On the surface, at least, we're dealing with a conspiracy thriller, albeit one that features a scattering of leftfield plot points. Willem Dafoe plays a professional hunter dispatched to the outback by shady corporate types, with an eye to bringing back the DNA of "the rarest, most elusive creature on the planet" - the Tasmanian tiger. He takes as his basecamp a blue-collar outpost already suspicious of outsiders, and further fractured by a developing split between the local logging community and the kind of liberal-lefty treehuggers Dafoe's cover requires him to pose as; there's a growing sense he's venturing into territory he'd be better off keeping well away from.

You may need the patience of a hunter to fully appreciate it: the best part of the film is Willem in the woods, looking variously focused, pained or spooked as he sets and baits traps in pursuit of his prey. Personally, I felt we'd been left to watch a brilliant, meticulous character - and an automatically compelling performer - adrift in a film that doesn't have much of an idea what to do with him, save to turn him into a patsy of sorts; increasingly, we're left waiting for a line to snag or a twig to break, and for the hunter to tumble into a pit of his own (or somebody else's) making.

Around Dafoe, it's always good to see Neill, a subtler and greatly more skilful actor than his Mr. Dependable rep would suggest, and the same goes for Frances O'Connor, an actress of unusual warmth, here cast as the hunter's hostess, the wife of a professor who went missing in the field some time before, resulting in the kind of fatherless household practically minded outsiders always seem to slot right into in the movies. But it needed a Peter Weir or John Boorman to bring its disparate elements together, and instead we're stuck with TV graduate Daniel Nettheim, and his distinctly small-screen idea of pacing. If it weren't for the calibre of the actors involved, we could be watching a slightly snoozeworthy Bear Grylls spin-off.

The Hunter opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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