As a general rule, I’ll watch anything featuring Willem Dafoe. I’ve been obsessed with this guy’s work since I first saw him in Michael Mann’s To Live and Die in L.A., and, save for a few misfires (Body of Evidence, Speed 2: Cruise Control), I’ve enjoyed just about everything he’s been in. It’s a testament to his choice in projects, but, even in the case of the occasional dud, Dafoe’s performances make it worth watching. I first got wind of the eco-thriller, The Hunter, early in 2011, when I happened upon a trailer. The promise of Dafoe as a mercenary hunter tracking down an elusive beast in the Aussie wilds shot this one to top of my must-see list, but, being an Australian production, I knew I’d probably have to wait until one of the more adventurous domestic studios picked the film up for DVD distribution. As luck would have it, Magnolia – easily the most exciting distributor at the moment – snagged the rights, and now brings The Hunter home on DVD and Blu-ray.
Dafoe stars as the elite tracker/hunter, Martin David, who is contracted by the mysterious Red Leaf Corporation to hunt down the Tasmanian Tiger; an animal long thought to be extinct. Red Leaf wants Martin to bring back blood, tissue, and organ samples of the creature as it is their belief that the tiger possesses a certain toxin in its saliva that can prove quite profitable. After a brief meeting, Martin is sent to Tasmania, posing as a University professor doing research on the Tasmanian Devil, and ventures out to the remote Armstrong home that will serve as his base of operations. When he arrives, he finds the home in complete disarray, and soon learns that the Armstrong’s two precocious children – “Bike” (Finn Woodlock) and “Sass” (Morgana Davies) – have basically been caring for themselves while their grief-stricken mother, Lucy (Frances O’Connor), lay in bed, near-comatose from a cocktail of anti-depressants provided by family friend, Jack Mindy (Sam Neill).
Jack guides Martin out to the areas he’s settled on for his “research”, and, along the way, tells Martin that the children’s father had ventured off into this very same part of the bush a year earlier never to be seen again. Martin also learns that the missing man had made a lot of enemies in their neck of the woods due to his conservationist efforts and their impact on the local logging community. From here, the film jumps back and forth between Martin’s extended forays into the wilds, and his brief visits back to the Armstrong abode, where he develops a bond with both the children and Lucy, who he helps get off of the medication and back on her feet. This bond not only angers the local loggers, who blame Lucy and her friends for their economic hardships, but also Martin’s employers, who want him to focus on the job he was hired to do. Soon, however, Martin comes to the realization that he’s not the first person Red Leaf has sent to find the elusive tiger, and he won’t be the last.
The Hunter is a deliberately paced, surprisingly moving, and deeply engrossing drama tinged with the DNA of some of the great “man vs. beast” films (Hatari!, White Hunter Black Heart, The Ghost and the Darkness) with a touch of conspiracy thriller action thrown in for good measure. It’s a gorgeously shot film, with breathtaking cinematography by Robert Humphreys, and wonderfully subdued direction by Daniel Nettheim. Nettheim leaves Dafoe to his own devices, here, letting the actor carry much of the film in silence, with Dafoe doing much of the heavy lifting with little more than expression and movement. The quiet scenes in the wild juxtapose the more talkative, interactive moments when Martin returns to the family he adopts as his own, with the character undergoing a transformation from insular being to surrogate man of the house, but it’s all handled with assured subtlety and a welcome lack of the typical saccharine bits that are usually the hallmark of this sort of cinematic metamorphoses. The supporting cast is fantastic, especially Neill, whose Jack Mindy finds himself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the Armstrongs and his logger friends. His actions are not without consequence, however, and, his reaction to said consequences result in some of Neill’s best work in ages.
Magnolia brings The Hunter to Blu-ray in a gorgeous 2.35:1 1080p transfer. The image is razor sharp, with an almost tangible sense of depth and an abundance of fine detail on display. The film’s palette is somewhat muted, in keeping with the seemingly perpetually overcast skies of the Tasmanian highlands, with an emphasis on grays, blues, and earth tones. It’s not especially vibrant, but the image still has a healthy amount of “pop”, and Humphrey’s gorgeous photography is beautifully represented.
The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is lush and immersive, especially in the dialogue-free scenes in the wild, where environmental effects – like the percussive sound of heavy rain pelting the leaves, or the crunch of brush underfoot – fill the soundscape. Dialogue is mixed up front and center, with a nicely organic quality.
Magnolia doesn’t skimp on the bonus features, offering a fact-filled commentary track by director, Nettheim, and producer, Vincent Sheehan. Making of the Hunter (HD) is a lengthy, four part mini-documentary about the production, and offers up interviews with the cast and crew, lots of behind-the-scenes footage, and some interesting anecdotes. Rounding out the extras are a collection of deleted scenes (HD), and trailers for this and other Magnolia releases (HD).
The Hunter is not a film for folks looking for high-octane action or edge-of-your-seat thrills, but patient viewers will be rewarded with an enthralling, beautifully shot, and expertly acted dark drama. Magnolia’s Blu-ray presentation is superb, offering excellent sights and sounds, as well as a well-rounded collection of extras, and earns a hearty recommendation.