“Crocodile” Dundee included, the reborn Australian cinema of the 1980s paid lovely, unhurried attention to the natural world—almost as if Oz were throwing down a challenge to other nations to find a terrain as majestic. In its finer moments, The Hunter harkens back to that tradition: It’s a quiet, woodsy Jack London–esque drama about a mysterious American, Martin (Dafoe, magnetic), tasked by a shadowy biotech company to go into the wilderness and find an actual Tasmanian tiger (or devil, if you like), a species long considered extinct. You watch Dafoe’s intelligent hands skillfully setting traps, building fires and squeezing triggers, and wonder if an entire movie might be made of such manly components.
Probably not. The novel on which the movie is based (written by Julia Leigh, herself now the director of 2011’s creepy Sleeping Beauty) gives Martin a running backstory involving his own besieged life choices. The movie also nods in that direction, getting the persnickety yet warming character involved in a broken family’s affairs: Martin blooms in the bold stares of two small children and a fiercely radiant country rose, Lucy (O’Connor), whose husband has disappeared. Alas, just when you’d like the movie to double down, à la Peter Weir’s Witness, on its cryptic hero’s rebirth, he’s yanked back into an abrupt close that feels rushed and poorly linked. Up to then, the atmosphere of The Hunter makes you breathe more deeply, in anticipation of something elemental.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf