“Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” - Gifford Pinchot
We watched a slow, brooding but nevertheless quite engaging Australian film at the weekend. It was the 2011 Daniel Nettheim film “The Hunter” starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Frances O’Connor and Morgana Davies. The film was based on the novel by Julia Leigh, with a screenplay by Alice Addison and Wain Fimeri. The film is set in Tasmania and the gorgeous scenic beauty of this Australian island is captured wonderfully by the cinematographer Robert Humphreys. The film has a central theme that is very much a controversial one in Tasmania – that of environmental concerns competing with security of jobs and the livelihood of many a local, who depend on logging to make a living.
Firstly a bit of background information, as central to the movie’s plot is an extinct Australian animal known as the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). This animal was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. It is known as a “tiger” because of its striped back. Native to continental Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, it is thought to have become extinct in the first half of the 20th century. It was the last extant member of its family, Thylacinidae, although several related species have been found in the fossil record dating back to the early Miocene. The Tasmanian Tiger had become extremely rare or extinct on the Australian mainland before European settlement of the continent, but it survived on the island of Tasmania along with several other endemic species, including the Tasmanian devil (still common).
Intensive hunting of the Tasmanian Tiger encouraged by bounties is generally blamed for its extinction, but other contributing factors may have been disease, the introduction of dogs, and human encroachment into its habitat. Despite its official classification as extinct, sightings are still reported, though none are proven. Like the tigers and wolves of the Northern Hemisphere, the thylacine was an apex predator. Its closest living relative is thought to be either the Tasmanian devil or the numbat. The thylacine was one of only two marsupials to have a pouch in both sexes (the other being the water opossum). The male thylacine had a pouch that acted as a protective sheath, covering the male’s external reproductive organs while he ran through thick brush. It has been described as a formidable predator because of its ability to survive and hunt prey in extremely sparsely populated areas.
In the movie, Willem Dafoe plays Martin David, an elite hunter who is secretly hired to locate the last Tasmanian Tiger (in this film, recently sighted in the wilds of Tasmania). He is under instructions to obtain genetic samples for a military biopharmaceutical company and then destroy all traces of this last surviving member of the species. The object is for the company to be the only producer of a potent biological toxin that the tiger is reputed to produce and which will be used in biological warfare. When he arrives in Tasmania, Martin discovers his lodgings are rather basic and not quite what he had expected (the lack of electricity especially and the dirty bathroom cause him a great deal of annoyance). He is to board at the home of a widow, Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), whose husband, Jarrah, an outspoken environmentalist with many enemies, went missing a few months before. Lucy has sunken into depression aided by liberally administered medication and when Martin arrives, the only signs of life are Lucy’s two inquisitive kids, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock) who take an immediate liking to Martin. The hunter soon runs into serious problems, kicked off by a confrontation with loggers who view him as “greenie”, seeing how his alias identity is that of University professor researching Tasmanian devils.
The movie has gorgeous cinematography of some really beautiful countryside; that alone is worth seeing the film for. Dafoe at the core of the action gives a great performance acting with his facial expressions and gestures for the greater part of the film when he is tracking the Tiger all alone in the wilderness. He was very well supported by the remainder of the cast, with Sam Neill playing a duplicitous local and Sullivan Stapleton an aggressive logger. However top honours go to the two young kids who carry the film together with Dafoe. The young girl, Sass, played by Morgana Davies is quite endearing and amazing in her acting, while the silent, psychologically disturbed young boy, Bike, played by Finn Woodlock almost counterpoints Martin’s character, explaining their mutual sympathy.
The film has a lot of plot holes and there are serious issues with the science behind it. Some of the characters are a little shallow and not well developed, but most of these problems with the film surface in retrospect. While one is watching the movie, one is drawn in and despite its slow pace, it does build up to a great climax. It is a dark and brooding movie that makes an environmental statement and examines the role of humans in the natural world. It is quite entertaining also, so they are good enough reasons to watch it, weaknesses notwithstanding…