The Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, was the largest carnivorous marsupial. It is thought to have become extinct at some point during the 20th century, though there are still periodic sightings. An animal that could no longer survive now lives on as myth, and becomes, like technology and progress, something else to pursue. In Daniel Nettheim’s The Hunter, William Defoe is the withdrawn, single-minded tool for those who want to bring the Tasmanian Tiger back to life.
Defoe plays Martin David, a no-nonsense bounty hunter. A military bio-tech company want him to bring back the DNA of the last tiger, but he eschews both the offer of a partner, and the need to ask why a dead animal is so valued. But Defoe’s rugged shabbiness, his face lined and distinguished, belies a quiet compassion. When he reaches Tasmania, in the guise of a visiting academic conducting research, he is to live with the family of a local man who recently went missing. The man’s wife, Lucy (Frances O’Connor) lies sedated, as if only her husband’s return will wake her. The house has no power, and the children fend for themselves. Slowly, the film reveals the wider implications to David’s mission. To the local people, he is a ‘greenie’, an environmentalist who has come to help shut down their local logging business. To Lucy and the children, he becomes the man around the house, fixing the outside generator and re-wiring the outside stereo speakers, literally bringing light and music to their lives. To the apparently benign Jack (Sam Neil), he is someone to keep an eye on.
All of which perhaps suggests that the narrative is more complex than it is. The film works, in fact, because David’s pursuit of the tiger is so straightforward. He spends most of his time in the bush, negotiating the remote and varying terrain, slowly getting closer to knowing whether there is actually a tiger to kill. Indeed, Nettheim doesn’t overstate the growing intimacy between David, Lucy and the children, with Defoe’s performance unstintingly aloof for most of the film. And whilst the environmental dispute with the locals has an impressive and occasionally violent intensity, it too is a distraction to his central purpose. Thankfully, in fact, the film doesn’t over-indulge itself in ecological moralising. David is, after all, a hired killer, and his motives and intentions remain shrouded throughout. And whilst the natural world is clearly an important theme - underlined by the beautiful cinematography as David treks in search of the tiger - the film allows the audience to make its own conclusions.
The Hunter has, in fact, a lot to recommend it. Gloriously filmed in parts, Defoe’s brooding presence hangs vividly over the whole piece, whilst there are enough questions left unanswered to give the film a sense of mystery as well as suspense. All of which makes it a more than adequate alternative to a documentary about Katy Perry. Whoever she is.