Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Thrill of the Hunt

I review over a hundred movies a year, and the fact that I still come nowhere close to seeing the majority of the world's cinema is somewhat humbling. Dismissing those that never actually reach our shores for distribution, there are still dozens of independent, foreign and limited-release features that - if they're very, VERY lucky - will appear in theaters for a week before vanishing. While some are deservedly worth the quick exit, it's still easy to miss an unexpected gem or an outstanding performance when this happens. That certainly appears to be the case for The Hunter, a 2011 Australian film that hit US theaters as The Hunger Games was making beaucoup bucks back in April. It never played in more than 17 theaters during its 10-week run, and was largely ignored by the movie-going public, who were more interested in seeing Marvel's The Avengers or Snow White and the Huntsman. But with award season about to hit and everybody posting their "Best of" lists, there's been some minor buzz over The Hunter's lead actor Willem Dafoe. I've been a fan of Dafoe since seeing him on VHS in Platoon, and he's probably one of the cinema's best and more under-appreciated character actors. The veteran is arguably the best part of many of his movies, from Shadow of the Vampire to Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy to Daybreakers. So since The Hunter was available on Netflix and I didn't really have the time to visit the theater, It was a no-brainer to check this out.

What The Hobbit is to New Zealand, The Hunter is to Tasmania.
Dafoe plays mercenary Martin David, an expert hunter sent into the wilds of Tasmania to hunt and obtain genetic material of the elusive Tasmanian Tiger, a creature thought to be extinct but allegedly sighted on two separate occasions. Getting his paycheck from military biotech company Red Leaf, he lands on the island under the guise of a University scientist studying Tasmanian devils. Forced to lodge with a single mother and her two inquisitive young children due to economic hardship in the area, Martin regularly forays into the forests in search of his prey. But even the lone wolf cannot keep from becoming involved with the people around him, even as he tries to keep his true purposes secret. Soon, Red Leaf loses faith in their operative and sends in their own man to "replace" him and get the job done, by any means possible.

"I'm huntin' Wabbits"
I said earlier that Willem Dafoe one of the best character actors in cinema. He easily proves it here with his morally-conflicted, largely silent protagonist, who is about as morose as antiheroes get without being outright annoying about it. In fact, it's a performance similar to that in George Clooney's The American, if you were to replace Clooney's excessive good looks and lady-killing energy with an aged, pockmarked facade. Dafoe's gradual development as a character is endlessly fascinating, as he slowly transforms from the loner who is here to get a job done and nothing else to an emotional and reluctant father figure to the family's young children. The actor puts forth some of his best work to date, and one can only hope that the perennial D-list actor can get some respect this award season. He might not present an actual threat to the likely trifecta of Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington or John Hawkes, but with organizations choosing not to recognize Anthony Hopkins' work in Hitchcock (though for the life of me I don't understand WHY), there's every chance the Academy could slot him in as a long-shot dark horse. After all, recent years have seen them do the same for Demian Bichir (A Better Life), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), among others. Seeing him nominated for a third Oscar might also rejuvenate a career that certainly deserves it.

He, on the other hand, is hunting Velociraptors.
Actually, there are a number of parallels connecting The Hunter and The American, most notably the dedication to showing off the exotic locations. Longtime television director Daniel Nettheim is no Anton Corbijn when it comes to camera work, but he still does his best to capture the beauty of the Tasmanian wilds, using as many panning nature shots as he can get away with. Scenes may not have anything important occurring but still do tons to establish the region as its own distinct personality. And unlike The American, Nettheim takes the time to set the gulf between the work-starved loggers whose livelihoods depend on the forests and the environmentalist groups who fight to prevent deforestation. In doing so, the director creates a whole human ecosystem that has dramatic effects on the events it tells.

Is a kung-fu flick next on Dafoe's calendar?
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie can't keep up with one actor and a pleasant landscape. The story is full of holes and unexplained phenomena, and while their answers would not solve all the film's problems, they are still the most identifiable. The acting is a second, as while the cast includes the talented Sam Neill and Frances O'Connor, far too much emphasis is placed upon the annoying kids, played by Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock. The adults by comparison are allowed to do far too little, with Neill especially wasted as little is done to explore his character's seemingly contradictory motives in any real detail. Finally, at the end of a film full of beautiful, almost artwork-like visuals, we are treated to a ridiculously cheap-looking CGI presentation that feels completely out of sync with everything we've already witnessed.

Nothing better to do...
The Hunter is not one of the best movies of last year. In fact, it's not even close. However, for one singular performance it's definitely worth a rental. Dafoe might be an extreme longshot for a Oscar spot that could easily go to Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman, Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Gere or Jamie Foxx, but you can't argue with his talent, or the energy he brings to this movie. If you're looking for something dark and philosophical, you could definitely do worse than this slow-burning thriller that will never bore you and at the end might leave you feeling as emotional as it did for me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Saw the movie, read your review, both thrilling.