When Willem Dafoe sets his sights on something, he's going to get it. That's too bad for the elusive Tasmanian tiger in the drama-thriller The Hunter, in which the celebrated actor plays a mercenary hired by a secretive military biotech company to track down the last remaining specimen of the animal. Usually a loner, he bonds with the troubled mother and her two children that he lodges with while on his quest.
Dafoe turns in a great performance as Martin David. The character is hard to read and harder to understand, his motivations clear and yet confused. Dafoe's deep eyes and grimace of a smile only extend the paradox that is his character; it's never clear what he's feeling or thinking. He looks sad when he's happy, happy when he's sad, joyful when angry. Angry when he's angry, too.
The movie's success rests largely on Dafoe's shoulders because, more than anything else, The Hunter is a showcase of the underrated actor's skill. Most of the other characters are periphery elements - the local Tasmanian rednecks who like to vomit threats, his concerned guide (Sam Neill) and even the woman (Frances O'Connor) that sets his inner journey into motion - which make Dafoe's talent all that more pronounced, but minimize the lasting impact of the production.
In this regard, the screenplay, written by Alice Addison and Wain Fimeri from a novel by Julia Leigh, is equally powerful and lackluster. The arc Martin travels is an intriguing one, culminating in a sad but powerful final minute where the stoic hunter finally breaks down, if only for a second. But The Hunter as a whole is an enigma, its purpose for existing not entirely clear.
More dramatic than thrilling, The Hunter will appeal to audiences interested in character studies more than those demanding suspense. The brief moments of tension add color to the production, but The Hunter succeeds when the focus remains on Martin and his transformation of a man. Ultimately, the movie is too insignificant to be remembered years from now, but Dafoe's performance makes The Hunter worth it.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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