Blu-Ray Review: “The Hunter”

Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill star in THE HUNTER, new to Blu-Ray.In the age of viral Internet marketing and 30-second TV spots, audience appraisals that a film “didn’t live up to expectations” usually imply that said film wasn’t as good as its advertising campaign. But what about the expectations established within the film itself?

It’s hard not to watch the opening scenes of “The Hunter” with giddy anticipation. The premise–Willem Dafoe is an expert hunter who’s hired by a military biotech company to travel to remote Australia and track down the last-known Tasmanian tiger, for reasons initially unclear–seems like a million-dollar idea. But rather than make the movie a procedural examining a corrupt corporation or a rugged man-vs.-wilderness tale, the two directions that one initially expects, writer/director Daniel Nettheim crafts a story that focuses more on human relationships. Thus, the experience of watching “The Hunter” becomes a constant battle to adjust one’s frame of reference — to accept and evaluate the movie that is, rather than the one that could have been.

If one succeeds in forgetting that it had the potential to be more exciting, “The Hunter” should prove satisfying — a well-acted tale set in a part of the world that rarely ever receives silver-screen exposure. Dafoe’s eponymous protagonist poses as university research scientist studying the Tasmanian wilderness, for any mention of an attempt to find the elusive tiger (much less kill it) could elicit extreme passion from both the locals and covert competitors. He stays with a family with whom he develops a great bond, despite a stoic, “I’m just here to do my job”-exterior. Complicating matters even further, the missing father of the family disappeared while searching for the same tiger, a fact that both deepens his connection with them and foreshadows that he may be putting them in danger, for there are clearly people who don’t want the tiger to be found.

Writer/director Nettheim handles the domestic drama well enough, but the sequences of a lone Dafoe searching for the tiger–and realizing that others are attempting the same–pack an unrivaled level of intensity. Not only does the veteran actor know how to make the most of these scenes by telling a story through his eyes, the filmmaking also complements his performance every step of the way, with Robert Humphreys’ washed-out cinematography standing out as particularly exceptional. Had these silent, but superiorly illustrative sequences made up the bulk of the film, then it could have been even richer. As is, “The Hunter” favors straightforward drama over a more existential variety — an adequate, if not inspiring mode of storytelling.

Outside of Dafoe’s internalized performance, perhaps the most complex element in “The Hunter” is one that most American viewers (this one included) won’t completely understand — a running political undercurrent about the socioeconomic impacts of deforestation in Tasmania. It’s a shame to think that the additional substance needed for the movie to be fully effective could be resting in front of the audience’s eyes without them realizing it. Then again, given how subtle the movie’s political references are, this is probably once again just me considering the movie that Nettheim could have made, not the one he actually did.

Blu-Ray Video and Audio: Magnolia’s transfer is striking, authentically capturing cinematographer Humphreys’ filmic, grey tones. Fine object detail is strong, with no traces of DNR. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is likewise sturdy. “The Hunter” does not have an especially active soundtrack, but it reaches a few robust crescendoes that this Blu-Ray captures with great clarity. Additionally, the delicate sound field of the wilderness scenes  is just perfect.

Special Features: The primary extra on this release is an audio commentary track by writer/director Nettheim and producer Vincent Sheehan. It is unlikely to change anyone’s overarching view of the film, for they mostly stay away from “big ideas.” The filmmakers are more interested in recounting production anecdotes and pointing out particular elements of each scene. Also included are a half-hour “Making of” documentary, a few deleted scenes, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

Movie Grade: B-
Disc Grade: B+
The Verdict: Rent it