That is Aussie slang, apparently. I don’t think this blog has reached Australia yet (though its getting hits from the USA, Nepal and Hong Kong- #winning) but If you can’t translate that, I’m bascially very pleasantly surprised to discover a rather good Australian feature film, and its well worth writing about.
The Hunter is an Australian film starring Willem Dafoe and directed by Darrell Nettheim, picked up at the last round of film festivals and redistributed internationally. I’d been led to it by a passing reference on Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo‘s radio show, and it was as good an excuse as any to catch up with my good friend and film buff Rob, at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol.
Its very rare these days not to know a thing about the film you are about to see. The rising cost of cinemas and the fear of having wasted you and your friend’s time demand an element of premonition when it comes to booking tickets. Spurred on by the presence of the mercurial Dafoe, we decided to give it a shot.
Set in Tasmania, Defoe plays a mercenary named Martin, commissioned to locate a supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger recently, for the purposes of a sinister American arms company. Despite his desire to stay in the wilderness, Martin is thrust upon a society the neither wants or need him, and the hunter naturally becomes the hunted.
Before I get into the critical meatof the film, let me get the criticism out of the way. Finishing a paragraph on a cliché like that makes me cringe slightly, but that is a pretty effective representation of what the Hunter sometimes slips into. It can’t quite escape a whiff of the generic, as if it is purposefully hiding in the shadow of Hollywood’s bigger-budget, formulated actioneers. The secondary plot is stilted by an irritating cyclical compulsion to re-enter the wilderness every time Dafoe gets close to finding himself, or discovering his inner patriarch, or signing the adoption papers for a pair of the most polarised screen siblings you’ll ever see. Whilst its an important narrative element to emphasise his reluctant compulsion to the hunt, Surely Julie Leigh, who wrote the novel on which this is based and adapted the screenplay, had more than one way of pulling Martin away from the provincial idyll offered by the fatherless family? Who, while I mention it, are bizarrely welcoming of the laconic mystery man who plays doctor, mechanic, social worker and replacement Dad, not once questioning why he’s continually assembling and reassembling a hunting rifle whist quite clearly doing exactly the same thing that led to the untimely disappearance of their father. Everyone in Tasmania seems just naive enough to leave Martin get on with mastering the bush and quietly seeth at the sheer incompetence of everybody who isn’t as ruthless and badass as him.
That said, slightly one-dimensional writing doesn’t detract from some excellent characterisations. Dafoe is on his usual excellent form, who manages to spend almost half the film alone in vast anamorphic panoramas, dominating the shot whether filmed erupting from a bathtub or from a helicopter on the edge of an verdant abyss. Sam Neill, long absent from the big screen, is somewhat hopeless and hapless, and perhaps his character’s regression from silvery action-man to grey-haired Romeo is a little hastily done. But that doesn’t detract from his performance, which is a consummate display of a man who has lived in the shadow of his dreams. But it is perhaps ten-year-old Morgana Davies who steals the show from the supporting cast, turning the air blue as the most precocious little girl this side of Chloe Moretz’s turn in Kick-ass; a superbly confident portrait of uninhibited innocence summed up as she bares herself to a shocked, far more stifled Martin to share a bath with the strange man. “Dad says we mustn’t waste the hot water” is her wonderfully observed response: adult practicality married to girlish ignorance forestalls the vulnerability of her nude body against the bemused incredulity of Dafoe.
Incidentally, Martin’s bath scenes are the single hint at a softer side that really does succeed as a distinctive emotive development, allowing Nettheim to confine the emotional arc of the plot to the provincial scenes. This, coupled with the bipolar distinction between what humans have and haven’t managed to destroy, leaves Dafoe complete freedom to encounter the wilderness. And boy, does he need every bit of energy he can commit, because the scenery of inner Tasmania is exhausting just to watch. Its MASSIVE. There is so much of it. Every time you think Dafoe has been rendered to the smallest visible particle in the middle of some ridiculously beautiful vista, Nettheim hits you with an even bigger and more impressive piece of scenery. How on earth any country in the world, let alone this preposterously small Island, can fit in this range and scale of landscape is beyond me. How Nettheim can get it all in his lens is equally incredible, and for that he has the efforts of DoP Robert Humphreys and helicopter pilot Gary Ticehurst to thank. Its an incredible effort and has an element of Peter Jackson to it- the not so much using the terrain as a feature of the film, as a living, breathing presence that demands your undivided attention. Kermode said that while watching this, he couldn’t stop thinking of the Nietzsche quote; “When you look in the abyss, the abyss looks back into you”. Antipodean film has a uniquely powerful sense of surrounding that powers many films made by and with local production companies, and the Hunter capitalises on this to make the land a malevolent, mysterious presence, a true force of nature.
- You can’t see what they’re seeing. This is the tip of the iceberg. That’s Sam Neill with Dafoe, providing an excellent foil to Dafoe’s singlemidedness as a guide who knows exactly where his feet are, but no idea where his heart is.
This bipolar aspect of the film is its making and its ultimate flaw; because Nettheim’s greatest resources are the natural opponents Dafoe must face, and the audience can only sit back and wonder at. His attempts to introduce relational strains aren’t so successful; the political and ecological rumblings raise interesting critical points of debate, but are ultimately a little lacklustre. Nettheim’s greatest assets the forces of nature, which Dafoe can inhabit without support, a fantastic use of fire worked throughout the film to illuminate the familial fulfilment and tragedy, juxtaposing the arid reds and ochres of fronter civilisation with the all-consuming green of the wilderness beyond. The Hunter left us with a sense of enjoyment and positivity far beyond any arguments of strengths and weaknesses; The potential of Australian cinema is being offered to the world, and despite being unable to entirely break free of Hollywood expectations, it offers a scintillating view of the spectacle international filmmakers can offer us from beyond our usual studio fare.