The opening scenes of “The Hunter” starring Willem Dafoe, set the tone of the movie, and the character of Martin David, a lone hunter and mercenary, with a pending meeting in Paris. Cooped up alone in his hotel room, he watches the world and the living through his glass partition, set apart. The scene shifts and classical music plays while he submerges himself in the tub, his toiletries set out in precise order on the sink. The water immersion takes on the feel of ritual cleansing as it appears again and again in the movie. We also are shown that he is no ordinary hunter — that beauty and gentleness, and methodical ruthlessness, can co-exist in the same man.
When he meets with his agent who is accompanied by a stranger, Martin the hunter, the man of precision and order, is uncharacteristically restless and abrupt because he has been kept waiting for two weeks.
“It’s Paris,” he is told. “See the sights.” To which Martin responds, “I’m here to work.” And he rejects the idea of the proffered partner.
“It must be very nice for you,” says the agent, “not to need anyone.”
The client, Martin learns, is Red Leaf, a military biotech corporation who has hired him to hunt down a rumored Tasmanian tiger, believed to be extinct since 1936. And, if there is substance to the talk, to bring back blood, skin, hair, and organs. (Red Leaf is aptly named). And since it is a top-secret mission, Martin’s cover story is that he has been sent by a university to study Tasmanian Devils.
Filmed on the island of Tasmania, Martin’s vehicle is viewed from above traversing a long, lonely road as he heads to his destination. With the film’s sweeping panoramas reminiscent of Jurassic Park, and its haunting, ethereal score, there is a feeling that the earth is young again and modern man does not belong there.
Martin arrives at his arranged home base, a sprawling, primitive complex owned by ecologist Jarrah Armstrong, only to find that the husband and father has been missing for a year, lost in the wilderness; the mother, Lucy, is in a comatose, medicated state of depression, and the children, Katie and Jaimie, must fend for themselves between supply visits from Jack Mindy (Sam Neill of Jurassic Park), who is Martin’s local coordinator.
But not only is the father missing, but so are Martin’s beloved amenities. The generator isn’t working — no electricity — and the bathtub is ringed and corroded with only muddy water flowing weakly from the taps. He pays little attention to the curious, lonely children, and makes his way to the nearest tavern looking for a room to rent. But there he is met with open hostility from the locals, who are loggers, though Martin does not respond in kind. Later, he is questioned by the local “greenies”, who are there to keep logging from scarring the landscape and disrupting the ecology of the island. As these two opposite poles collide, Martin tries not to get caught in the middle.
Instead, the hunter sets about to bring order to the domestic wilderness of the home, and sets to work scrubbing the tub. The children watch as Katie (who calls herself “Sass”), says whatever she pleases, and Jaimie (whom she introduces as “The Boy on the Bike” doesn’t speak at all. Afterward, Martin grits his teeth and takes a cold bath.
Now this lonely hunter must fend off invasions of his own den by the parentless children. As he plays his classical music, Sass walks in uninvited and asks pointedly what the woman is yelling about. “She sounds sad.”
“She’s not yelling,” Martin responds. “Haven’t you ever listened to music?” Later, as the soft fluid sound of the singing surrounds him, it clashes like waves on a rocky shore with the harsh sound of the hunter racking a round into his high-powered rifle.
As Martin makes his first trip into the Tasmanian wilderness alone, he seems dwarfed by the sheer expanse of primitive nature, and we get the feeling we are looking at the only man left in the world. The expanse seems to sweep for miles until it bumps up against a horizon outlined by craggy cliffs. Martin is in his element, his own features a reflection of the rugged terrain, and sets about with methodical purpose, setting traps among colorful wildflowers, making camp against giant deadfall, patiently waiting, making notes and marking his map, as the wind breathes in and out of the alien looking treetops and clouds scud by overhead.
Back at his home base, order and purpose begin making inroads into the home and lives of the children as they eat dinner at the table together. He pays attention to the silent boy’s childish paintings. Sassy Katie prattles and continues to wonder what the opera lady is singing about, and sticks her nose continually into his business. The boy helps Martin get the generator working again. The children are making inroads of their own into the wilderness of Martin’s heart.
As the generator brings light and life to the dark, depressing homestead, the sound of her husband’s favorite music awakens the children’s mother (Frances O’Conner) from her stupor. Mistaking the man the children are clamoring over for her long-lost husband, she flings her arms around him and Martin, in turn, holds her carefully until she realizes her mistake. The new life seems to die away inside her as she makes her way slowly back into the house.
But Martin takes it upon himself to start the woman on the path to life again before he leaves on his next hunting trip by cleaning her up and getting her off the pills. Later, as he gets to know the mother and children better, he also gets to know something about the missing husband and father — about his hopes and big dreams.
Yet, as he ventures more and more and farther and farther into the wilderness, finding an odd kill here, a mud track there, we also get the feeling of a strange bonding between the hunter and his illusive prey. The man who has lived his life alone, hunting, killing, shares his feelings with the silent, big-eyed boy back at his home base.
“I wonder,” he says, “if she is the last one. Alone. Hunting. Killing. Waiting to die.”
The “greenies”, who attend a party given by Lucy and her children, begin talking about the rumored sightings of the Tasmanian tiger. A young man asks Martin what he would do if he found the tiger.” Martin maintains his cover story of studying the Tasmanian Devil. “I know what I’d do,” the young man says. “I’d point his nose due west and tell him to run like the wind.”
Later, as Lucy and Martin talk about her husband’s mysterious disappearance and the tiger he sought to protect, she says the animal would probably be better off extinct. “If it was alive”, she said, “people would always try to find it. Hunt it down.”
These are the thoughts that stalk the hunter as he ventures into his last foray into the wilderness, where the hunter becomes the hunted, and all his skills must be called upon to survive. It is also where all his newly-learned heart skills must be brought to bear in order to walk across that boundary between merely sustaining life, like the tiger, and living.