Willem Dafoe, his gaunt, weathered face all sharply chiseled angles, determinedly hikes through dense foliage and across mountain meadows, setting and baiting traps.
He’s in the mountains of Tasmania, the Australian island state that’s 150 miles south of the mainland.
An American mercenary, he’s trying to catch a Tasmanian tiger, a wolf-like marsupial believed to have been extinct since the early 1930s despite occasional reports of sightings. (Here’s footage of the last Tasmanian tiger, filmed at a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1933)
Dafoe plays Martin David, the hero of “The Hunter,” an absorbing Australian drama that opens in theaters on Friday (it has been available on VOD since last month). His is a cloak-and-dagger mission: after reports of yet another sighting, David has been hired by a European corporation to hunt down covertly the last remaining Tasmanian and harvest genetic samples.
“Hunter” is a man-against-nature movie, or more accurately, a man-with-nature movie. Martin spends much of his time in the backcountry of Tassie (as the Aussies, with their inclination to abbreviate everything, call it), turning up tantalizing evidence that the tiger may indeed still exist.
In between stays in the mountains, he poses as an academic scientist and bunks in a rented room in a rundown rural house owned by a woman, Lucy Armstrong (Francis O’Connor), and her two adorable kids. Her husband, also a scientist, has gone missing some months back while he too, it seems, was hunting the Tassie tiger.
As Martin grows closer to the woman and her moppets, both their safety and his own become an issue as shadowy forces – is it the corporation who hired him or local loggers who think he’s an environmental activist threatening their jobs – target them.
Dafoe, making like a woodsier version of Alan Ladd in “Shane,” gives a mesmerizing performance here. First-time director Daniel Nettheim, whose background is in TV, does a solid job of telling his story (the screenplay is by Alice Addison, based on a novel by Julia Leigh), though the film’s ending feels abrupt.
The film also serves as a convincing travelogue promoting Tasmania, showcasing its wild beauty and diverse landscape. While often considered the Ozarks of Australia – jokes about inbreeding among Tasmanians are an Aussie staple – any viewer seeing “Hunter” will likely add the island to his or her desired destinations list.