Rarely does Hollywood tackle the subject of endangered species, much less extinction, unless there are animated mammoths or lemurs spouting slapstick one-liners to keep the mood upbeat.
But leave it to Magnolia Pictures, whose releases tend toward the more erudite side of entertainment, to bring forth a film like The Hunter. Directed by Daniel Nettheim and starring Willem Dafoe, this Australian adaptation of a novel by Julia Leigh delves fearlessly into the heart of modern-age extinction and lands with its cross-hairs on the Tasmanian tiger.
Hired by a military biotech company seeking rare genetic material, armed mercenary Martin David (Dafoe) sets out into the Australian outback on the ethereal trail of the Tasmanian tiger, which is rumored to still roam the most remote reaches of its range.
David's clandestine contractors have arranged for his lodging: a rural cabin that happens to be the home of an environmental activist who disappeared while searching for signs of the tiger's existence. David moves in and sets up base camp with the missing man's wife and two kids, who seem lost in a state of grief and disarray.
The children are eager to befriend the hunter. Through he's aloof and somewhat suspicious, he begins helping the family rebuild their lives, gaining their trust in the process. Under the guise of a university scientist studying the Tasmanian devil, David is able to elicit clues from the children about the tiger's whereabouts.
During frequent excursions into the mountains, he employs finely-honed tracking skills to pursue his legendary quarry, setting snares in likely habitats. Ever persistent in his goal of killing a Tasmanian tiger and collecting tissue samples for his wage, David unwittingly becomes attached to his nature-loving housemates, and some degree of confliction seems to manifest in his heart over the course of the story.
Rarely are the hunter's emotions expressed through dialog. This is a terse and extremely quiet movie, particularly when compared to the big-budget blockbusters that flood today's theaters. The viewer is often asked to attune to the hush of the mist-shrouded mountains and glean subtle cues from the lines and hollows of the hunter's solemn face.
An understated sub-plot alludes to a longstanding belligerence between local loggers and activists known as "Greenies." The longer David lingers in the small mountain community, the more suspicion he garners from locals, until the situation escalates into unforeseen violence, and the hunter is forced to make decisions he never anticipated.
The Tasmanian tiger, more aptly known as thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), presides over the movie with a ghostly presence, tantalizing the viewer with the possibility that it might still exist somewhere, just out of reach. In reality, there has not been a confirmed sighting of a thylacine since 1936, even though people claim to have seen them as recently as 2012.
"Although the precise reasons for extinction of the thylacine from mainland Australia are not known, it appears to have declined as a result of competition with the dingo and perhaps hunting pressure from humans," reports the Australian Museum. "The thylacine became extinct on the Australian mainland not less than 2000 years ago. Its decline and extinction in Tasmania was probably hastened by the introduction of dogs, but appears mainly due to direct human persecution as an alleged pest."
In The Hunter, the biotech company that dispatches Martin David to track the thylacine is seeking DNA from the unique marsupial in order to replicate the animal's purported ability to paralyze its prey with a toxin in its saliva.
The Hunter by Julia Leigh was published by Penguin Books in December, 2001. It has received mixed reviews, running the gamut from "compelling" and "hypnotic" to "grim" and "mediocre." I haven't yet read it, but watching the movie enticed me to pick up a copy.
The Bottom Line
The Hunter is, unquestionably, a dark tale. Extinction makes for grim subject matter, after all (Ice Age notwithstanding). That said, the movie maintained just enough heart to keep me invested until the end.