River Of Grass
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Could the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger still be out there? Willem Dafoe investigates. Australian drama based on the novel by Julia Leigh (writer-director of Sleeping Beauty)
In this nicely handled slice of Australian drama from TV veteran Daniel Nettheim, Willem Dafoe plays Martin David, a mercenary sent by some shady conglomerate sorts to track down a rare beastie in the Tasmanian back of beyond. The Tasmanian tiger (or Thylacinus cynocephalus, named from the Greek for "dog-headed pouched one") was supposedly hunted to extinction in the 20th century - but sightings are still reported. (Not that this necessarily means all that much, given the number of sightings reported of Bigfoot, UFOs and Princess Diana).
It's still a relatively unusual premise for a film, and allows for some spectacular on location shooting by cinematographer Robert Humphreys, showcasing both flora and fauna, although it's the fauna in which the film is notionally interested.
Martin David is reasonable company, which is lucky, because we spend a lot of time with him. He listens to classical music while examining his arsenal of weaponry, which, as we all know, is character shorthand for cultured-but-badass. He also wears manly vests and knows how to gut small furry creatures without any Bear Grylls style showboating. Essentially, he's a quiet, stoical fellow in more or less the David Attenborough vein except he does a lot more killing.
Apart from Willem Dafoe himself, The Hunter's greatest asset is its tight control of mood and atmosphere, created and sustained by top notch technique across the board. Canny musical choices deserve a special mention, with one scene containing probably the most atmospheric use of Bruce Springsteen in a film released in 2012, juxtaposed at other moments with more trad fare including Baïlèro from Songs Of The Auvergne and a rousing burst of Bach's Gloria chorus.
The resolution of the Tasmanian tiger mystery itself is neither pure MacGuffin nor the dime on which the whole film turns - the piece has broader, perhaps more allegorical concerns, giving the elusive tiger odd common ground with the white whale of that more famous epic beast-quest, Moby Dick. And the moment when Dafoe's hunter discovers the viability of his quest is as moving as anything in the film.
If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise, in the form of an elegant genre-hopper coming on like Werner Herzog meets Michael Crighton.
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On Film4: 31 August 2014