FEW words inspire more excitement among filmmakers in search of a title than "hunter", or variations thereof. From Dirk Bogarde's 1952 drama Hunted to Iranian director Rafi Pitts's The Hunter of 2010, the chase to bag the H word has been a heated one. The latest to take it up is Daniel Nettheim's Australia-set drama, starring Willem Dafoe.
You can see why the word is so sought after. It gives a film an immediate pep, a frisson of anticipation, a swish of intrigue. But Nettheim's picture, adapted from the novel by Julia Leigh, seems to deliberately run away from the drama conjured up by its title, preferring to go about its business in as low key a way as possible.
This could be a dangerous tactic, one that would run the risk of boring the audience to death if the film didn't have the twin benefits of the stunning Tasmanian scenery and Dafoe's terrific performance to recommend it. The Hunter is the kind of elegantly assembled, intelligently drawn, gently political drama of the kind that wouldn't have been out of place in the 1970s. Subtract Dafoe and the scenery and it could pass as a television movie (Nettheim's career to date has largely been in television). Add them, and Nettheim's picture is well worth your cinema tenner this weekend.
Dafoe plays Martin David, the hunter of the title. We first meet him in Paris where he is given his next mission, one that is at once as old-fashioned as a pith helmet and as modern as the internet.
For a large fee he is to go to Australia in search of the Tasmanian tiger, a creature believed to have been extinct for decades. If he finds the animal he is not to bring it back for posterity but to kill it and retrieve biological samples – blood, hair and organs. Why? Because a biotech company wants to make a buck from it. Why else? In this cowardly new world, as in the cowardly old world of big game hunters and colonisers, everything has a price, most of all the hunter himself.
With the cover story that he is a scientist conducting research into the local wildlife, David sets up base camp in a family home in Tasmania. In this home, however, the family is not much in evidence. There are two children, a gabby little girl and a mute boy, but dad is nowhere to be seen and mum has taken to her bed.
Though determined not to get involved with whatever is going on with this hippy lot, David becomes aware that life is not so simple in this outback. For a start, the locals are at war with the "greenies", eco-protesters who want to stop logging companies stripping the forest of trees. As the hunter tries to get on with his job, it emerges he is not the only one with an aim in mind.
Dafoe is surrounded by a fine cast, key among whom are Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock, playing the youngsters, and Frances O'Connor as their mum. This being an Antipodean picture, Sam Neill turns up too as a friend of the family. One would complain about Mr Neill's ubiquitousness if he did not unfailingly add a certain class to everything he is in.
Nettheim sets the story up quickly, sorting his characters into bad guys, good guys and everyone else, then sets about testing our assumptions. Though the characters are kept simple they have enough about them to hold the interest.
Chief among these characters is Dafoe's David, a man of few words and most of them riffs on "leave me alone". Dafoe has a face that was made for films with hunted, or haunted, in the title.
Here, that face is buried under a beard, lending him a wild-man-of-the-mountains look, but those eyes, those cheekbones, are still recognisably Dafoe's.
What a strange career Dafoe has had, boomeranging from the bizarre (Lars von Trier's Antichrist) to the blockbuster (the Green Goblin in Spider-Man). Whatever he is in, he's a bit of a Tasmanian tiger of acting, retaining an effortless cool and mystery. Nettheim wisely recognises this and keeps him on screen as much as possible.
Humans aside, Dafoe's main co-star is the environment. This isn't the wilderness as a tourist board promo, this is nature made to look as it sometimes is – harsh, cold and hostile, at once beautiful but dangerous too. The wildlife caught on camera is weird and wonderful. The ecological point is made, without seeming trite and obvious. If these are the known wonders of the world, how much more is there to discover?
The Hunter will leave you pondering this and much else as it wends its way onwards, never preaching, never hectoring, but definitely leaving its mark on the head and heart.
Glasgow Film Theatre; Cineworld Renfrew Street, Glasgow; Cameo, Edinburgh; Belmont, Aberdeen.