A biotech research company hires a mercenary named Martin (Willem Dafoe) to hunt down the Tasmanian tiger in the Australian bushland. He finds the territory extremely hostile because the loggers in the area are afraid that environmentalists will endanger their work. Martin takes refuge with a family, including Lucy (Frances O'Connor), who takes sleeping pills and her two small children, one of whom does not speak. Their house is a shambles because they are reeling from the disappearance of Lucy's husband, who went missing while looking for the tiger himself. With the help of some drawings from one of the kids, Martin travels back and forth to the bush, trying to bait the tiger. Yet the ambiguity surrounding Jack (Sam Neill), a fellow bushman, lends a sense of unease to Martin's expedition.
The Hunter is like a safari trip with no wildlife in sight. It is based on a novel by Julia Leigh. She wrote and directed Sleeping Beauty earlier this year. If she had adapted her own novel this might have been a more accomplished film, not just because of her formal sophistication, but her understanding of her own story too. What's missing here is clarity and a strong narrative premise. The film is sketchy with plot details because we know so little about the research company or Martin himself. Without this foundation of exposition the twists in the narrative and Martin's eventual attachment to the family make little sense. There are superfluous characters too. The motives of Sam Neil's character are achingly unclear. What we initially assume about Jack doesn't eventuate and then his surprise alignment is never explained. His part is so superfluous that it could have really been played by anyone or cut altogether. I was disappointed that he was wasted in this film. Compounding these narrative issues is the lack of real conflict and drama. Apart from an improbable climax, the film is dull. We rarely feel the weight of the terrain overcoming Martin. There are also far too many scenes of him driving aimlessly, coupled with moments of trap making and the domestic scenes, which don't satisfy.
Director Daniel Nettheim tries to rectify the lack of tension through the inclusion of the territorial loggers. But their representation and characterisation is laughable. They act more like a group of evil bikies, terrorising people by flashing their headlights and firing rifles in the air. This needed to be handled with a lot more subtlety and to have the tension build under the surface. At the very least, the film has some conceptually interesting ideas, including the way that groups of men mark their territory. Both the loggers and Martin resort to primitive methods, like intimidation and hunting and gathering, to determine their grounds. The film also holds a natural beauty that is immensely impressive. None of the Australian landscapes have been stylised because they don't need to be. The focus on the lush greenery of the bushland is solely magnificent. These are some of the more impressive elements of The Hunter, which individually, point to a more complete thriller. Yet like so many Australian films, the script needed more refinement and a lot less driving.