Willem Dafoe's time in the wilderness is becoming a career motif. He frolicked with the Fantastic Mr. Fox while voicing a rat and then he spent some quality crazy-time with Charlotte Gainsbourg and yet another fox--a scary, prophetic, talking one--in Antichrist's black forest. He voices the Bird's Eye polar bear in UK advertisements and now he's hunting for a possibly extinct Tasmanian tiger in this sort of messy, sort of thoughtful, sort of unfocused Australian import.
As the title character, he's for hire. And his employer is a shady biotech firm looking to clone the debilitating toxin from what may be the last known Tasmanian tiger (not to be confused with the Tasmanian devil), a bizarre striped creature that looks like what would happen if a kangaroo, a jungle cat and a long-snouted wolf whipped their DNA together and made a spooky baby that could eat you alive.
Obstacles for Dafoe: violent loggers whose jobs have been eliminated due to environmental regulation, the local "greenies" who want to see that any animals left alive in the wild are also left alone, tree-bolted surveillance cameras tracking his every move, a function-unknown Sam Neill (whose face always reads "third act reveal as villain") and the fact that Dafoe may very well be hunting an animal that no longer exists.
Dropped into the mix are two little kids and their grieving widowed mother (Frances O'Connor), whose father/husband is a mysteriously disappeared environmentalist (see: violent loggers above). The kids run wild because Mom's avoiding reality with a lot of sleeping pills and, in one of the movie's less welcome plot threads, Dafoe becomes surrogate Dad, transforming everyone in the process, Mrs. Doubtfire with an automatic rifle. This translates into just a touch too much irritating bonding time at the expense of the much more satisfying and gloomy man-versus-wild-versus-his-own-soul-versus-corporate-domination story. It's as though the filmmakers watched George Clooney's glum loner in The American and gave themselves the "hunter needs to occasionally hug children" note.
But Dafoe's stern commitment to his character keeps you watching and, frankly, a movie that tries hard to maintain its serious intent, even while covering too many bases, is automatically more compelling viewing than one that can't be bothered to cover any at all, even if all the bells aren't clearly rung. So at least you know that the downbeat atmosphere isn't about to take the full Hollywood redemption plunge. It's still Australia, after all, where the beer cans and knives are very large and there's still a distinctly realistic spirit to most independent film. Exceptions made for ABBA-worship, ballroom dancing or troupes of bus-dwelling drag queens, obviously, but you get me.