A talented actor with an unforgettable face, Willem Dafoe tends to get typecast as villains thanks to his uncanny ability to ooze malevolence. But those who have followed the Oscar-nominated actor's long and illustrious career know he's capable of so much more. Sure, his sneering portrayal of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart possesses the power to physically repel viewers, and his work as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire projects a deep-rooted malaise that gradually works its way under our skin, but the true key to Dafoe's success has always been his ability to play emotionally complex characters with a sense of genuine humanity just beneath the surface. There's a reason why Martin Scorsese chose Dafoe to portray Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, and that's exactly the type of performance Dafoe delivers in director Daniel Nettheim's remarkably assured adventure drama The Hunter.
A mercenary employed by a highly secretive biotech-research company sets out into the wilds of Tasmania in search of the elusive Tasmanian tiger -- an animal assumed to be extinct by scientists, yet rumored to have been spotted in the area in recent years. Adapted from the novel by author Julia Leigh, The Hunter follows Martin David (Dafoe) as he arrives at the home of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O'Connor), who has been heavily depressed since her husband vanished into the surrounding wilderness months ago, and who now lives alone with her young daughter Sass (Morgana Davies) and taciturn son Bike (Finn Woodlock). Having fallen on financially hard times, Lucy has volunteered to host Martin in her home during the course of his research excursion. Soon after, Martin is accompanied to the edge of the wilds by Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), an old friend of Lucy's who has kept watch over her family and scoffs at the newcomer's decision to navigate the rough terrain unaccompanied. In the wake of a clash with hostile local loggers, Martin gradually begins to learn more about Lucy's family and develops a tenuous friendship with her two young children. But later, just as he begins to feel as if his goal is finally within reach, an unexpected development sends his mission into a tailspin and causes him to question the motivations behind capturing such a strange and majestic creature.
A meditative, thematically sophisticated film that demands the patience and attention of viewers -- and rewards both handsomely -- The Hunter follows the story of a solitary, methodical mercenary who gradually connects with his humanity through contact with a bohemian family reeling from a devastating loss. Though it's often difficult for screenwriters to effectively translate the themes and emotions of a great novel to the screen without seeming heavy-handed or trite, first-time feature-film screenwriter Alice Addison does an exceptional job of construing her characters' inner complexities in a manner that's recognizably humane without being aggressively earnest. Meanwhile, displaying the confidence of a veteran filmmaker, experienced television director Nettheim evokes nuanced performances from his genuinely talented cast. And though it will likely come as little surprise that Dafoe and Neill are capable of navigating such challenging waters, it's the expressive supporting performances Nettheim coaxes from co-stars Frances O'Connor, Morgana Davies, and Finn Woodlock that really make the material resonate. Lucy's dazed and devastated reaction after mistaking Martin for her husband early on strikes a haunting chord that effectively echoes throughout the rest of the movie, while her children cast a feral yet vulnerable charm all their own.
On top of all that, The Hunter is a visually sumptuous film thanks to cinematographer Robert Humphreys' sweeping, majestic shots of the richly textured Tasmanian landscape, while composers Andrew Lancaster, Michael Lira, and Matteo Zingales back up the action with an evocative score that perfectly complements the deliberate pacing and atmosphere. As measured as The Hunter is, however, it's never boring; Nettheim and Addison work in perfect harmony to balance the dual mysteries of Martin's clandestine, high-stakes mission and the uncertain fate of Lucy's missing husband, ensuring a clean shot to the heart once they've got us locked in their sights.