My life until this point has been missing a certain something that I wasn't able to articulate until after watching The Hunter. It turns out that spending about 90 minutes staring at every inch of Willem Dafoe's face will help you understand The Meaning of Life. Well, not really, but it is really interesting, because he's a good actor. The movie, which I count as a quiet character study, makes respectable choices, but in the end might be too classy for its own good.
Like 2011's Belgian hormone mafia drama Bullhead, this film illuminates something I never knew existed--namely, the supposedly-extinct Tasmanian Tiger, which looks like something PETA would have commissioned from HR Geiger. Some shady corporation hires Martin (Dafoe), the classic loner-with-a-gun type, to charge into the mountains of Australia and track this elusive beast. He doesn't know why, and in typical fashion, doesn't ask questions because that's not part of the job.
Also not normally part of the job is acting as babysitter, but that's close to what happens when he arrives at his pre-arranged lodging. There are 2 kids there and a mom zoned out on pills, and he's taking the spare room. Their father has disappeared during his expedition into the hills, but any adult male will fit the bill, so they hover around him while he still tries desperately to hang onto his classic loner habits. Good luck, Martin. It didn't work for Leon in The Professional. And to make matters worse, Australians are apparently very territorial when it comes to people wandering around their wilderness. The disenfranchised locals make it really hard to conduct a hush-hush hunting mission for a probably-evil big business.
Sam Neill is sandwiched in here as local liaison Jack Mindy, charged with helping Martin with the difficult territory. Much like the rest of the movie, he's not a caricature or easily pinned down, but he's also not very engaging. He just shows up to add definition to other plot points that still remain in fuzzy focus. I would assume, gauging from the acclaim that the book has received, that this character might work better in print. In fact, that might be the case with the entire movie.
Although we never get any pat answers about his backstory, Dafoe is constantly broadcasting some deep inner rumblings while he's doing menial tasks, like setting animal traps, assembling guns, and taking baths. It makes it easy to forget there's nothing really going on in this movie. I enjoyed seeing the subtly softer side of Martin as he carefully weaves himself into the fabric of this broken family, as he slowly figures out why his spidey sense is tingling about this mysterious job. Lucky for him the nefarious conglomerate isn't as clever as he is (are they ever?), and the ending feels like a mildly satisfying end to a mildly satisfying movie.