Martin David (Willem Dafoe) is a professional hunter from America who has found himself in another part of the world to ply his trade for a multinational corporation, Redleaf. The have hired him to visit Tasmania so he can carry out an investigation for them, one which they anticipate will bring fruitful pharmaceutical results: find the so-called Tasmanian Tiger. This was an animal which was wiped out some eighty or so years ago thanks to a campaign of deliberate exctinction, but there have been rumours ever since that a number survived, and what may be the last one ever in existence could be in the unexplored wilderness of the island...
The Hunter, not to be confused with Steve McQueen's last film, was based on an acclaimed novel by Julia Leigh, who had branched out into films herself with the same year's Sleeping Beauty, but left the task of adapting this to others, led by director and co-scripter Daniel Nettheim. Taking advantage of the region's lush, picturesque scenery was almost a good enough reason, if not better, to make the film as the story, and there were points here where the landscape overhwelmed the human element, which was almost appropriate in light of the main character's isolation being both concentrated and soothed by this location.
Not that he doesn't encounter trouble, at first from many locals who are now without jobs, and blaming that on the activism of the environmentalists who wish to see the natural beauty of the island preserved. So right from the start the tension between the sort of person who saw to it that the Tiger was rendered extinct and the sort who wanted to see it saved was part of the emotional territory of the piece, and this was brought to a head in the way that Martin initially keeps his distance from this, and the manner in which it gradually draws him in. Much of that is down to the house he's staying in when he's not out in the countryside, which he discovers belonged to a man who could well have been carrying out the same task as he is.
That man is now missing, but he has left his family behind, wife Lucy (Frances O'Connor) and children Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock), who are eking out an existence assisted by the mysterious landowner Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), who may or may not have their best interests at heart, and further to that may know more about Martin's endeavours than he's letting on. It is this broken family - Lucy has spent most of her days in a pill-induced stupor since her husband disappeared, on the advice of Mindy - which awakens the long-dormant feelings of humanity which Martin has suppressed for quite a while, though that doesn't mean he's going to stop searching for the thylacine, especially when he learns the husband thought he'd seen it.
But then, there are plenty of unsubstantiated claims that the animal had been seen over the years, so is Martin on a wild goose chase? There are interesting themes of mankind's duty to the natural world and how they let that down, whether by neglect or by expressly intending to, but the problem here was that you had all that wonderful scenery, the menace of not knowing if the hunter is out there alone or what kind of machinations are going on beyond his ken, and an excellent performance from the ever-reliable Dafoe, but it was saddled with a plot that was not only pretentious but implausible into the bargain. There may have been tree-hugging (or marsupial hugging) to this, which was all very well, but it asked a bit much to accept there was some evil corporation prepared to murder to get their hands on the animal, and more than that Martin's reaction at the end which looked as if he'd gone bonkers. A pity, because there were very good reasons to watch this.
[Predictably, those Tasmanian landscapes look great on Artificial Eye's Blu-ray, with an interview with Dafoe, a making of featurette and a trailer as the extras.]