When The Hunter begins, it’s with the glassy confines of an airport hotel, its inky evening views over the tarmac and, next, the interiors of one of the terminal’s nondescript bars. “I’m here for work,” says mercenary Martin David (Willem Dafoe), his American accent incongruous with the job he has been given: hunting down the last Tasmanian tiger for a military biotech firm, despite the animal’s presumed extinction.
The only thing that screams Australia about The Hunter’s opening minutes is that tiger, although a glimpse of a Qantas plane and Hobart Airport soon follow. Martin has committed to the gig and, posing as a university biologist, he swiftly heads south to track down his fabled target. He’s immediately greeted by Tasmania’s distinctive landscape — its towering, tree-lined peaks with their craggy edges; the lizard-green shrubbery that peppers sprawling paddocks; and the state’s wintry forests, which sustain the local logging industry — and he’s soon immersed in one of Australia’s least-typical neo-noirs. Aussie filmmakers love a sunburnt country. They love lensing ochre-hued soil, and using its parched expanse, weathered cracks and the unforgiving sunlight blazing from above to radiate pain, sorrow, complexity and several centuries’ worth of scars. The Hunter uses its setting as visual shorthand, too, but instead finds its hurt and anger among the leaves, bark and muddy earth.
The second feature from writer/director Daniel Nettheim, and still currently his most recent, The Hunter fills its frames with sights that are rarely enlisted to represent Australia on-screen. Tasmania’s status as a cinematic backdrop has been growing gradually, but the number of movies that luxuriate in soaring moss-covered trees, babbling streams, rocky cliffs and thickets as far as the eye can see remains minute: Van Dieman’s Land (2009) precedes The Hunter, while The Nightingale (2018) succeeds it. Indeed, when Martin is given the lay of the land by a local played by Sam Neill, viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the latter has wandered into the film from the set of Jurassic Park. In its appearance, this atypicality always plays in the movie’s favour, however; every great noir needs an air of mystery and uncertainty, and Nettheim finds much of The Hunter’s in its vivid surroundings.
This isn’t a sun-dappled noir, a group that includes fellow Australian features The Square (2008), Red Hill (2010) and Goldstone (2016), all of which do the golden-toned local chapter of the genre proud. The Hunter still frequently takes place during daylight hours, but it serves up a misty, dusky and often twilight-set Aussie noir, with its intricacies diffused through the foliage that surrounds our constantly peering, searching and exploring protagonist. It isn’t by accident that Nettheim and cinematographer Robert Humphreys frequently frame Martin either encircled by or behind jutting leaves and intertwined branches — or both — when they’re shooting him in sunlight, with plants and trees standing in for noir’s usual looming shadows. Visually, the film also mimics the monochrome colouring of noir’s heyday, but by painting with shades of green rather than grey.
These striking aesthetic decisions — the leafiness and earthiness, the foregrounding of verdant backgrounds, and even the wooden planks that feature so prominently in Martin's lodgings with the Armstrong family (Frances O’Connor, Morgan Davies and Finn Woodlock) — aren’t just a matter of style. As adapted from the Julia Leigh-penned 1999 book of the same name by screenwriter Alice Addison, The Hunter demands a sense of nature thanks to its central quest, which unfurls as a wilderness detective story. Martin is given a case, as well as clues to follow. He’s hunting an animal rather than endeavouring to locate a person, stolen cash or a prized object, but that pursuit leads him into a deeper maze, complete with shady figures undermining and hindering his every move. If Leigh had decided to name her novel The Tasmanian Tiger in a nod to The Maltese Falcon, or if Nettheim had opted to do the same in bringing it to film, the wink and nudge would’ve fit beautifully.
Leigh’s book slots firmly into the Tasmanian gothic genre, with its brooding tone and heavy reliance upon the Apple Isle’s landscape; teasing out the noir elements lingering within is an astute on-screen choice nonetheless. All that scrub and bushland, all those trees and, when the season turns and the weather with it in The Hunter’s third act, all those flecks of snow: they still might not scream Australia as most audiences are accustomed to seeing it, but they convey the same thorniness that the nation’s sun-drenched outback so often represents. All that foliage is frequently literally thorny and knotty, in fact, tangled, twisted and sinuous as it is. A clear and always-apparent source of texture, Humphreys lenses it with an eye for its contrasts, and it couldn’t better set the feature’s tone.
Such dense, jungly sights also couldn’t better underscore The Hunter’s existentialist thread. Contemplating the woes, ills and misdeeds of human existence — and of humans merely existing and following their desires and very nature, a noir mainstay — ripples with extra weight and resonance when almost every image visibly heaves with the clash of man versus the natural world. Martin’s task is motivated by humanity’s desire to capture, tame, control and exploit everything around it, but attempting to harness something wild is never that simple. Each tree-laden shot emphasises the point like it’s adding a full stop to a sentence. The frosty and hostile reception that Martin receives by the local logging community, who buy into his cover and disparagingly label him as an environmentalist, also bristles with the same conflict. While The Hunter is at its most blatant when loggers taunt, jostle and use physical means to tell the stranger in their midst that he isn’t welcome, these blunt moments also speak to the domineering world that Martin comes to realise he’s rallying against, and the beauty and innocence he decides to protect.
The pulse of noir courses through The Hunter’s frames, each as loaded with detail as the flora and fauna they observe so lovingly. It’s there in Dafoe’s steely gaze, and his lined brow that can appear as rugged, conflicted and emblematic as the film’s backdrop; stern, silent and yet conveying so much with such judiciously chosen words, he’d make a great double act with Goldstone’s Aaron Pedersen. It’s also present in Martin’s status as an outsider assessing a problematic situation with fresh eyes. It’s there in the disappearance of the Armstrong family’s patriarch, too, a mystery that predates Martin’s arrival but is added to his quest as he finds his connection with his hosts growing. And, it lingers in that blossoming bond with Lucy (O’Connor), Sass (Davies) and Bike (Woodlock), which sees him play surrogate guardian to the closest thing the movie offers to damsels in distress.
Again and again, The Hunter adapts, interrogates and evolves noir’s staples. It wouldn’t be the Aussie neo-noir classic it is without its perceptive approach to its setting, however. As haunting as the feature’s yearning use of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ is when it’s deployed at a pivotal point, nothing resounds as deeply and significantly as the film’s willingness to shake up its genre — and its homegrown subgenre — by striding so boldly and eagerly into the Tasmanian wilderness.
– Sarah Ward, Writer and Film Critic