In the moody, compelling wilderness drama “The Hunter,” Willem Dafoe plays a cold-eyed mercenary named Martin who heads into the Tasmanian woods in pursuit of a fabled beast and, yes, his own humanity. “It must be very nice for you, to need no one,” says a representative of his employer, in a slightly too on-the-nose exchange. That employer is a deep-pocketed biotech firm, which wants Martin to track, find, kill and harvest the DNA of a Tasmanian tiger — even though the species supposedly went extinct in the 1930s.
“The Hunter” has some interesting DNA itself. The shadowy machinations of the biotech company recall the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 1960s and ’70s. More than anything else, the movie’s portrait of man against nature (and of the mortal against the eternal) brings to mind the mystical, eco-conscious Aussie films of that same era: “The Last Wave,” “The Long Weekend,” “Walkabout” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock.”
When he arrives in the outback, posing as a university researcher studying Tasmanian devils (a different animal), Martin finds lodging at the hippie-ish home of a real zoologist, who vanished months ago in the area Martin plans to explore. The missing scientist has left behind a chatty daughter who calls herself Sass (Morgana Davies) and a younger brother she calls Bike (Finn Woodlock), as silent as his sis is talkative. They’re basically raising themselves: mom Lucy (Frances O’Connor) spends her days in a drugged stupor, though a slightly shifty local named Jack (Sam Neill) looks in occasionally.
The local economy relies on logging the area’s unspoiled forests where the tiger lives, if it lives. On arrival, Martin is immediately pegged (and harassed) by the lumberjacks as being one of the “greenies” who are trying to shut down their saws. Back at the house, Martin fixes the broken generator, becomes a surrogate father to the two kids and helps Lucy return from her grieving fugue.
These scenes of conflict and renewal are nicely done. But the best parts of “The Hunter” come from Martin’s wordless, solo expeditions into the wild. Is the tiger (a marsupial that resembled a canine as much as a cat) actually out there, or is this a snipe hunt with existential overtones? Though his career has been mainly in television, director Daniel Nettheim makes the most of stunning outdoor locations. And though we recognize that Dafoe’s Martin is thawing out of his loner lifestyle, “The Hunter” avoids schmaltzy happy endings. It maintains a morally ambiguous perspective and doesn’t shy away from drawing real blood.
“The Hunter.” Starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O’Connor. Directed by Daniel Nettheim. Rated R. 104 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.