The Hunter (2011), starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neil and Frances O’Connor, and directed by Daniel Nettheim, is a quality, high-gloss Australian film, the kind which pops up every year or so with the aid of a liberal sprinkling of public money and a Hollywood star.
The story is about the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, a collie-sized carnivorous marsupial. This interesting creature officially became extinct in 1936, when the last known thylacine died in a zoo. But since then, thanks to numerous unconfirmed sightings, the penchant of Tasmanians for plastering pictures of the thylacine anywhere they can, and the creature’s strange, almost fantastic appearance, it has attained the status of a mythical, cryptozoolological creature, on par with the Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster. Unlike those two creatures, however, there is no scientific doubt about the existence of the thylacine. Old footage of a real thylacine pacing around in a zoo is used in this movie.
Martin, the titular hunter played by Willem Dafoe, is a man with no friends or family, who spends his days waiting for his next job, or hunting, always on his own. He’s given the task of going to Tasmania to catch a thylacine, where a confirmed sighting has occurred. He presents himself as a university professor studying Tasmanian devils (a different, but also interesting creature) and boards with a widow and her two children. Despite his solitary nature, and his explicit instructions not to, he finds himself drawn into the small world of the local people; the loggers, environmentalists, and others, to all of whom the thylacine and the forest are important, for different reasons.
The conceit of this movie is believable. A movie about a hunter going after Bigfoot would seem too fantastic and unbelievable. Fun, maybe, but not realistic. We would know we were watching a pure fantasy movie. However The Hunter does not present itself as a fantasy story. As we are watching it, it all seems very plausible, and that plausibility is part of the enjoyment. We really want it to be plausible, too. I think everyone regrets that the thylacine no longer exists, and we wish it were still here, and part of us wants to believe that is really still is here, and that at least some of those unconfirmed sightings must be true. So it’s a different kind of enjoyment to that of a pure fantasy movie.
The Hunter got almost everything right. The casting was good, the acting was great. The script was very tight, the character arcs were sensible and interesting, and we viewers got our Aristotelian catharsis at the end of them. The beautiful, eerie scenery of highland Tasmania was almost a freebie; a director could have been lazy about shooting it and been praised for it, but it is presented very well.
The hunter’s task is pretty boring, on the face if it: wandering around alone, setting traps, making notes, putting marks on maps, waiting, but that whole thing is presented with aplomb. It’s actually quite interesting, watching that lonely task being undertaken, and one really gets a sense of a lot of time passing, a lot of effort being expended, and a lot of skill being brought to bear by the hunter.
The ogres of the film, if not the villains, are the loggers, and it’s here that the movie made its first misstep. Protecting the old forests of Tasmania is a hot political issue in Australia, and watching the movie, as an Australian, I got the feeling that the spark which caused this movie, and the book it was based on, to happen, had something to do with that issue. However the loggers are portrayed simply as ogres, very shallow depictions. The filmmakers did not need to do this, because the movie has a ‘true’ villain, played by Sam Neill. Loggers are, as far as I know, just ordinary folk doing simple, honest labour for the livelihood of their families, not ogres at all. These guys aren’t getting rich from chopping down trees. (The firm they work for might be, but there is scant or no mention of it in the movie). There was space in the movie to show the loggers in a more human light. The fact that the filmmakers chose to de-emphasise the loggers’ humanity in favour of making them more like ogres gave the film a somewhat judgemental, politically left-wing sheen, which it didn’t need and did not serve it, and which did not give this viewer a favourable impression. I thought, as I watched, “can’t you just tell the yarn? Do I have to hear your political opinion as well?” Boring!
The main problem was the computer animation. Such a small thing, but it had such a huge effect.
So, toward the end of the film, after lots of brief, fleeting glances of the thylacine in the distance or behind trees, the hunter’s hard work pays off and he finally sees it, square in front of him. His research has shown it that seems to be the last one in existence. However by this time in the film, he has realised that human beings, family, friendship and love, are all more important than both thylacines and forests. His mission to Tasmania, interacting with the local people and getting involved in their lives, has changed him. It has also turned out, during the course of the film, that the client who hired the hunter is a biological arms manufacturer, who seeks a unique hormone in one of the thylacine’s glands to make some kind of weapon of war. Rather than let the hunt for the thylacine harm more people, he decides to shoot it instead. Thus, he ends the hunt and protects everybody who would have otherwise been harmed by the continued existence of the creature.
Now, to show the thylacine, the director turned to CGI animation. It’s such a uniquely shaped creature that a dog in makeup would not have been sufficient. The verisimilitude of the animation is very good. However, at the crucial moment when the hunter has the thylacine in his sights, and is wrestling with whether or not he should pull the trigger on such a beautiful, rare creature, the thylacine looks up. It looks straight at the hunter, then looks down, “…as though understanding everything, and accepting its fate.”
This animation is calculated to resemble human emotions, and thus elicit some kind of emotional reaction from the viewer. You’ve seen cartoon animals do it all the time, in fact, I am sure the animator, Konstantin Kovalenko, has done it a few times in other films he’s worked on. But the problem is that this film is not supposed to be a fantasy. The plausibility of its conceit is a big part of its appeal. When we see the thylacine, that’s supposed to be a real thylacine. But all of a sudden, it stops acting like an actual wild beast, which is what is it supposed to be, and acts like a cartoon character, which is what it is.
The sudden obvious phoniness really ruined all the work the filmmakers had put in to establishing the realness, plausibility and verisimilitude of this movie. We, the viewers, know that thylacines aren’t really wandering around remote parts of Tasmania, but we are completely ready to believe they are in this movie. But the falseness of the animation reminds us, “oh of course, in ‘real’ real life, not the real life presented in this movie, thylacines are extinct, and I’m actually looking at some kind of elaborate fictional CGI puppet.” That absolutely does not help the movie.
It also seems like a cheap grab for emotions. But the film was so strong until that point that it did not need to do that. Additionally, giving the beast human emotions also reflects the filmmakers (presumed) political/religious opinions about nature and existence, about which the viewer doesn’t much care, not in this film anyway. This is a film about a lonely, machine-like man learning the paramount importance of love and human beings, and gradually coming back to humanity himself.
That one moment of animation was a poor choice. It would have been far better to have left out that tiny moment of animation, and had the thylacine acting like a normal wild animal throughout. It’s a shame, as the rest of the movie is really top notch, and even the ogrification of the loggers would be forgivable.
J Marc Schmidt