Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The (Tasmanian Tiger) Hunter

The Tasmanian Tiger is sort of like the Australian Sasquatch, except it was definitely real enough. Though declared extinct, reported sightings persist in remote corners of Tasmania. One dour mercenary’s client is certain the reports are true and have sent him into the field to bag the last marsupial-cat in Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Martin David is a hard-bitten merc, who apparently specializes in fish & game. His latest client is Red Leaf, an oddly New Agey sounding biotech company that wants sole possession of the last Tasmanian Tiger’s DNA. Supposedly, the Thylacine (as it was properly called) secreted a mild toxin to help incapacitate their prey. Red Leaf wants to replicate that secretion, since there are only a couple hundred compounds already on the market that perform the same function cheaper and more effectively.

Red Leaf has covertly arranged for David to pose as an academic researching Tasmanian Devils (gosh, in this case, isn’t man the real Tasmanian Devil?), while staying in the home of Lucy Armstrong, a young presumptive widow with two children. Word of the credible tassie tiger sightings has leaked out, putting pressure on David to complete his mission quickly. Yet, much to his surprise, David lets himself get emotionally involved with the Armstrong children, who are still coming to terms with the suspicious disappearance and assumed death of their father. Of course, Red Leaf hardly approves of sentimental tarrying and has ways of dealing with lollygagging freelancers and their distractions.

The initial premise of The Hunter is so eye-rollingly stupid and clichéd, it nearly scuttles the entire film right from the start. However, Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast as David, portraying the gradual awakening of his conscience with convincing conviction. The Tasmanian wilderness is also hugely cinematic, shrewdly lensed by cinematographer Robert Humphreys to maximize the effect of exotic mystery.

It is hard to call The Hunter a thriller, per se. Rather, it invites descriptive adjectives such as “brooding” and “intense.” Those fit Dafoe’s performance quite well, but Nettheim’s direction is somewhat slack at times. Still, he handles the long awaited appearance of the tiger rather deftly. While Dafoe makes something rather compelling of his anti-hero, the film’s stilted preachiness constantly weighs down its momentum. An interesting dark character study, but a considerably flawed adventure-drama, The Hunter is the sort of film to wait until it is available for free cable viewing or Netflix streaming. It opens this Friday (4/6) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.