Monday, July 2, 2012

The Hunter (July 5th at the Cleveland Cinematheque)

[THE HUNTER screens Thursday July 5th at 7:45 pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.
Maybe it's because I was being being slammed with eco-extinction documentaries during the period in which I saw THE HUNTER, plus I had to review a new Australian sci-fi novel whose theme is basically that global warming is permanent and we're doomed, no point even in recycling, g'day mate! But whatever the reason this dark drama/thriller really got under my skin, in a way few movies have. I can't call THE HUNTER a masterwork, exactly, but I can't fault it, either. It's got the plain-spoken downbeat quality of some of Clint Eastwood's more morally challenging pictures, like UNFORGIVEN and MYSTIC RIVER. Perhaps if Eastwood had starred and directed (instead Daniel Nettheim is at the helm) in this, perhaps some dozen years ago, it would have gotten a higher-profile theatrical release. Instead THE HUNTER has gone the limited-run/direct-to-DVD route despite being based on a 2001 novel by Julia Leigh that was bestseller in Australia.

Willem Dafoe, certainly one of our more Eastwood-ish actors, portrays a steely professional hunter, going by the assumed name Martin David as he arrives Down Under. Actually "Martin" is employed by shadowy European biotech company to hunt and obtain samples (i.e. kill and retrieve) the last surviving Tasmanian tiger. This predatory animal has been officially listed as extinct since the 1930s but is still the subject (in real life as well as Leigh's fiction) of cryptozoological sightings.

Arriving in the wooded hinterlands, "Martin" finds himself eyed with suspicion by both sides in the middle of an unbridgeable conflict between roughneck local lumberjacks who want to continue clear-cutting their local old-growth forests to save their jobs (seems Australian lumbermen are no brighter than American ones) and the idealistic "greenie" activists. A field scientist friendly with the tree-huggers, a man who seemed to have clues to the elusive Tasmanian tiger, has disappeared, leaving a wife zombified on prescription drugs and children fending for themselves.

Masquerading as a fellow naturalist, Martin ingratiates himself with the forlorn household and turns into a surrogate head of the family as he pursues his mission, with a side interest in just what exactly happened to the missing man. In an atmosphere of growing paranoia and danger he begins to realize just how lethally ruthless his faraway corporate masters can be when they get impatient for results.

The film-noir atmosphere makes a stark contrast with typical Hollywood eco-fare you expect to come out of today's movie industry, in which there's fun! thrills! adventure! cartoon villainy! and the mythic mystery  animals are usually Bigfoot or Nessie. Here the Tasmanian tiger slowly evolves in the viewer's mind (or at least mine) of everything that's been lost or destroyed with decades of relentless industrial progress and greedy multinationals. The grim, unsentimental ending is the farthest thing from the crowd-pleaser pablum that studio focus groups vote over. Talk about greedy, amoral multinationals.

Yes, it's not the feelgood hit of the summer. If you want the mass-audience equivalent, I do believe the CGI movie of Dr. Seuss' environmental storybook THE LORAX is now out, with the wisecracky cast of celebrity voiceovers. For the one or two grownups left who go to movies, THE HUNTER should rightfully haunt and disturb, with its themes of boundless human treachery, the bleak permanence of species extinction and only a small token of rebellion on the antihero's part. It got me so that I've started to read the Julia Leigh novel after the fact, which I almost never do, and that's something. (3 out of 4 stars)

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