In the age of Google Earth and GPS, there seems to be fewer and fewer blank spots on the globe, a gradual lifting of darkness which, rather than eliminating mystery, grants a heightened sense of it to the dark places that remain. This condition increases the potential of movies like The Hunter, which plays out in the remote rainforests of Tasmania, Australia's southernmost island. But the film falters despite this potential, mostly because it refuses to focus on its core story (of a man pursuing a semi-mythical beast), hedging its bets with forays into family drama, environmental thriller, and corporate intrigue.
Titular tracker Martin David (Willem Dafoe) lands on the island in search of the fabled Tasmanian tiger, which scientists believe went extinct in the 1920s. This relatively sensible quest, given the nature of David's employer (a pharmaceutical conglomerate, searching for something vaguely genetic) and the film's brown and grey palette and full plate of weighty issues, guarantees to not be any sort of fun, swashbuckling expedition. That sense deepens as we get to know Martin, a brooding grump fond of loud opera and quiet solitude. He's the kind of character who begins as a husk, and the expectation is that we'll either watch him grow back to personhood or, as seen recently in The Grey, have his crankiness confirmed by external malice. The Hunter falters because it tries to do both, heaping on brutality and darkness while clinging to a sentimental emotional through line.
That emotional spine comes courtesy of Martin's host family, thrown into protracted turmoil after their patriarch's recent disappearance in the forest. Settling into his task, Martin views this mourning woman and her two rambunctious children as a distraction, dealing with them gruffly before heading off to hunt the tiger. But problems, both with locals and nature itself, keep getting in his way, and he returns again and again, building a relationship and eventually restoring their broken home. Things escalate when Martin learns that his mission isn't as clear cut as it seems, eventually discovering that the children's father was working on the same assignment when he disappeared.
The back and forth demonstrated here indicates an overall lack of balance. The solitary forest scenes have a tentative, naturalistic beauty, largely thanks to the fog-wreathed Tasmanian landscape; they establish a more introspective, quieter tone. Such scenes might turn into something if left alone, but they keep getting interrupted before a flow can be built, resulting in a jagged feel as Martin hustles up and down the mountain. The Hunter has its merits, notably performances by Defoe and Sam Neill, as a conflicted neighbor who's both a protector and a threat. But it's easy to get distracted from these elements with so much else going on.
As it progresses, the film grows from a simple tale of man versus beast to a complicated parable with multiple implications, roping in all kinds of hot-button issues. The destruction of precious resources, the plight of local workers, and ravening corporate greed are all briefly spotlighted, but the complexities of these issues are never fully explored. Things culminate with a final showdown that goes by much too fast, spoiling 90 minutes of tension on a brief, unsatisfying climax. The Hunter has a lot of ideas to express, but it would probably be a better film if it chose to focus on one of them.