Martin David is a mercenary sent undercover to Tasmania. His employers, Red Leaf, are a private military biotech firm who are seeking one of the last Thylacines, or Tasmanian tigers. The legendary creature purportedly had a unique venom that paralyzed its prey and Red Leaf want that. Red Leaf are paying, which means Martin wants that too. What he doesn’t want is to make connections…
The Hunter is essentially a story about the Questing Beast. There’s any sort of metaphor that you can apply to the hunt for the thylacine, and each character has a different one. For Martin, it’s a pay day. For Lucy, Sass and Bike, the family Martin stays with, it’s indistinguishable from Jarrah, their missing member. For Red Leaf it’s a tactical advantage. For all of them, it’s closure, certainty.
Only one character, Jack Lindy, wants nothing to do with it. Lindy’s little more than a cameo, essayed with typical grace by Sam Neill. He’s also one of the most well drawn characters in the film. Jack is full of contradictions; a bluff local who freelances for Red Leaf, a kind uncle to the children whose father he may have killed and an unwilling accomplice in the eventual murder of two other characters. When Martin confronts him about it he lies, and can tell he’s lying. Jack is desperately concerned with the status quo and can’t let himself see his efforts to preserve it are exactly what’s destroying it. It’s a really subtle arc for such a minor character but it speaks to the overall quality of the movie.
Every emotional beat here is, if not muted, then consciously dialled back. Daniel Nettheim has the same eye for the countryside as Gregg Mclean, director of Rogue, the best Huge Crocodile In The Outback movie not many people saw. Both excel at showing how large the landscape is and how little the characters matter, but Nettheim takes it a stage further. As Martin gets closer to his prey, Nettheim uses silence and weather to drive home plot points. Martin falls at one point and the only noise is his body hitting surfaces on the way down. Later, after events have taken a turn for the worst he makes his way through a freezing hail storm. It’s never obvious, or crass, but Nettheim has no problem working these elements into the background.
The same is true of the characters. Defoe in particular is great, playing Martin as cautious but never frightened. It would be all too easy to play him as near feral but Defoe’s approach is far subtler. Martin is a quiet, studious man who hides everything. He’s clearly unhappy, a repeated motif of him taking baths could be read as a baptism metaphor but he’s completely functional and aware. As a result the bond he builds with the family is all the more effective and affecting. Each of them is missing something, each of them instinctively knows it and Sass and Bike know to do something about it. Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock are handed a thankless task here and absolutely excel at it. Davies in particular is great; endlessly talking, no filter and utterly disarming as a result. Crucially though, the script lets both children show Martin, and us, just what they know. Both realize Jarrah has to be dead, neither can articulate it and so they go on as best they can for as long as they can. Martin’s arrival is both the final nail in Jarrah’s coffin and the moment they realize that. Both react with tremendous bravery; Sass welcoming Martin to the family and Bike attempting to join him on an expedition. One wants to heal, the other wants to slay the dragon, both want an end and the beginning that should follow it.
Frances O’Connor is, if anything, handed an even more thankless task than the children. Lucy is more a consequence than a character, kept drugged by Jack as a kindness to her grief and a sop to his guilt. Even when she’s taken off the drugs, there’s almost no time for her to grow and settle into the movie as an active character. She does get one beautiful moment though; Martin and Bike fix the generator, the house lights up again, the record Jarrah left starts playing and she wakes up. Joyous at the thought Jarrah’s back, she sees a man with children on his shoulders. She walks up, embraces him and just for a moment, Martin hugs her back, desperately. That moment of human contact closes the circuit, brings him back to the world and starts the journey that leads to the end of the movie and to the final character, the Tiger itself.
There’s a single moment where Martin finally comes face to face with the tiger. They look at each other, the tiger drops its head, stands still and waits. Martin kills it, walks over and bursts into tears. It’s a hugely powerful moment, again conducted in almost total silence and speaks to every thematic element of the movie. There’s man vs nature in that scene as well as the sudden, almost alien tragedy of being the last surviving member of your species. It’s a moment which is equal parts assisted suicide, spiritual awakening and total, absolute closure. Martin is free. The hunt is over. Now he has to work out what to do with his life. The scenes that follow, Martin cremating the Tiger, scattering the ashes using Jarrah’s flask and finding what’s left of his family, are as powerful but it’s that moment that stays with you. It’s the single moment of closure in a film filled with open physical, and emotional, space and the payoff for everything that’s gone before. Catching the Questing Beast is never the point, hunting it is, and what the hunt teaches you has rarely been better portrayed than it is here.