Willem Dafoe (John Carter) assumes the title role as Martin David, an expert hunter who’s hired by a shadowy mega-corporation in Europe to acquire the Tasmanian tiger for them in the Australia wilds. Although thought to be extinct, the animal is rumored to have been sighted recently, making it perhaps the last one in existence. In other words: worth big, big bucks.
Martin’s lodgings aren’t exactly ideal; he’s put up in a ramshackle home with a broken generator and an outdoor toilet. It also houses an unusual family, whose weakened situation is belied by their sturdy name of Armstrong.
It’s led, to stretch the definition, by Lucy (Frances O’Connor, TV’s Cashmere Mafia), a freshly widowed woman so self-medicated for grief, she stays near-comatose in bed, leaving her two young children, Sass and Bike (Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock, respectively, both adorable and heartbreakingly natural), to fend for themselves.
That the steely reserve of the guarded, grizzled Martin will melt away when the kids need him was expected. What wasn’t is how moved I was by it — so much that when Martin went back out to the chilly wilderness to do his job, I found myself less interested in seeing him build ingenious traps, and more interested in wanting to see him interact with the children he’ll never have.
Director Daniel Nettheim handles both halves of his film splendidly, with a far more confident grip than his TV background would lead you to believe. It helps having the gorgeous Australian landscape in his cast. It also helps to have an actor as gifted as Dafoe front and center. The veteran never lets the script (based on a novel by Sleeping Beauty director Julia Leigh) get cuddly, and when you’re dealing with tots this actively, that danger is ever-present.
Only a sour turn of events in the third act dimmed my enthusiasm for Nettheim’s picturesque adventure. The development may be organic, taking a page straight from Leigh, but it still turned me if not quite against The Hunter, a good step away from it. —Rod Lott