The Hunter

M15+, 101mins

Directed by Daniel Nettheim

A forgotten gem amongst Australian cinema is James Bogie’s slow-burn thriller In the Winter Dark from 1998, which focused on a pair of neighbours in an escalating series of betrayals and secrets. The film was set against the backdrop of the infamous Black Panther myth that blossomed out of the rumour that Americans let out one of their mascots amongst the Australian hinterland and that it still roams the region. Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter is an equally captivating, and similarly chilly, look at politics and human frailty set against the story of a famed four-legged beast; this time the thought-extinct Tasmanian Tiger.

Australian filmmakers keep returning to these four-legged animals, but always in rather oblique off-centre ways – both Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill and Jody Dwyer’s Dying Breed initially appear to be about panthers and thylacines respectively, but end up having more pertinent issues on their minds. Like the aforementioned films, The Hunter is more about this nation’s deep-seeded, simmering undercurrent of violence more than anything related to actual Tasmanian Tigers. Also like the other films, it deals with the fear of interlopers and the growing sense of unease that many Australians have over this landscape (a theme that goes back, most famously, to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and beyond).

Willem Dafoe (Antichrist) stars Martin David, an American specialist huntsman hired by a mysterious conglomerate to track down the thylacine that has reportedly been spotted. He arrives in Tasmania and discovers he will be boarding at the house of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor, Blessed), a woman so bereft at the year-long disappearance of her husband in the wilderness that she remains in bed, laced with sleeping pills, only occasionally appearing to take as little care of her two children (one of which is the superb Morgana Davies from The Tree). That her husband disappeared while hunting the very same tiger in the very same region should ring alarm bells with Martin, but instead finds himself so intent on discovering the animal – and the husband – that he puts his life and that of his proxy family in grave danger.

The Hunter is based on a novel by Julia Leigh who earlier this year wowed some and angered others with her directorial debut, Sleeping Beauty. The screenplay by Alison Addison does, I suspect, an effective job of condensing Leigh’s text, sub-text and who-knows-how-many-more-text into the tightly wound finished product. Aided immeasurably by the icy photography of local cinematographer extraordinaire Robert Humphrys that bathes this quiet, yet ultimately quite gripping, tale in rich, deep greens and browns of the rolling Tasmanian forests. Essential sound design, too, works magic as each drop of rain cascades off of the leaves and logging crews work meticulously in the far distance.

Speaking of which, the only aspect that the film truly fumbles is that of the logging disputes that is a very real issue in this area of Tasmania. Martin’s rapid involvement in the dispute is nicely played at first, before turning into unnecessary hysteria. The protesters are portrayed as nothing more than hemp-loving hippies (there is curiously a scene involving fire breathing and hula-hoop dancing that comes out of nowhere), and the loggers are a jaunty hat and a glove made of blades away from evil nightmarish creations.

Audiences wishing for a film about the action packed hunt for the Tasmanian Tiger will surely be disappointed in The Hunter, but the film has never promised to be anything of sort. It is an atmospheric and richly rewarding film that glides along at a pace akin to that of the small country local within which it’s set. This is Nettheim’s first film since Angst in 2000 and has spent the time since directing for television, but you wouldn’t know it from the sublime craftsmanship he puts on display in this film. It frequently bubbles with simmering tension while revealing layers of itself that the actors handle with aplomb. It’s a superbly understated piece of filmmaking that plays with notions of identity in between its fascinating study of the Australian wilderness.

The Hunter (Madman) is playing in cinemas nationally.