in the age of loneliness

oliver downes: daniel nettheim’s the hunter

Willem Dafoe, The Hunter

Willem Dafoe, The Hunter

JULIA LEIGH’S DEBUT NOVEL RELATED A WRENCHING PARABLE UNFOLDING IN SIMPLE, CRYSTALLINE PROSE. IT NETTED HER A GENEROUS BASKET OF AWARDS WHILE EARNING HER FANS IN FRANK MOORHOUSE AND DON DELILLO, NOTABLES WHO WERE SUBSEQUENTLY JOINED IN THEIR PRAISE BY TONI MORRISON AND JM COETZEE ON THE RELEASE OF HER EERIE SECOND EFFORT, DISQUIET.

Indeed, Coetzee’s thoughts on the latter—“[it is] so infused with the practices of film that, while each scene is fully and even vividly realised in words, it also translates quite naturally into film”—are equally applicable to The Hunter, Leigh’s coolly impersonal third-person voice in the novel mimicking the all-seeing eye of the camera, the story developing through smoothly contained cinematic chunks.

Although Leigh has since moved into filmmaking in her own right (see Sleeping Beauty, see review), the author has remained outside the adaptation process of her first novel, the film instead being steered by director Daniel Nettheim, whose television work on shows such as Love Is A Four Letter Word and All Saints seems to have prepared him well for the challenges of feature direction. Shooting from Alice Addison’s screenplay (whose credentials include several episodes of My Place, based on Nadia Wheatley’s award-winning book, as well as the Cate Shortland-directed 2006 police procedural The Silence), Nettheim has produced a smoothly mesmerising film that absorbs us without ever quite becoming gripping.

An American mercenary, operating under the name Martin David (Willem Dafoe), is given an assignment by a shadowy biotech company, Red Leaf: travel to Tasmania and find the last Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, kill it, then harvest its blood, skin and reproductive organs to be used for undisclosed research. Operating under the cover of “researching [Tasmanian] devils for the university,” Martin settles into the ramshackle house of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), bereft after the disappearance of her husband, and her two children, the beguilingly foul-mouthed Sass (Morgana Davis) and silently watchful Bike (Finn Woodlock), using it as his launchpad into the bush. With Lucy in a self-medicated stupor, Martin is forced to negotiate with the children whose assistance seems dependent on his promise to search for their father, though his interest in them sharpens as he realises that the unspeaking boy may have sighted the elusive Thylacine.

Nettheim has heightened the bitter tensions between conservationists and forestry workers, a stand-off that also formed a backdrop to the novel: in a loggers’ pub a sticker has been amended to read “Save Our Native Jobs,” Martin finds his car with its windows smashed and “go home greenie scum” smeared across the bonnet in faeces after his initial excursion into the wilderness, while the filmmakers apparently used activists’ 2010 blockade of the Upper Florentine as a ready-made set. Martin is steered between the faultlines of Tasmanian society by Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a rough-spun local who turns standoffish as Martin’s potential as rival for Lucy’s affections becomes apparent.

Although Nettheim has suggested that his treatment of the political forces at work within the state doesn’t take sides, the occasional shot of bark being stripped from a tree trunk like a body being flayed cannot help but have a strong political resonance. Indeed, neither can the 360 degree panoramic helicopter shots of Dafoe trudging through the spectacular landscape of the central Tasmanian plateau. While such footage allows the land to speak for itself, it also emphasises the character’s isolation within it, highlighting the tension that lies at the story’s core: between those who see the world and the creatures that inhabit it as a resource to be utilised for the material ‘progress’ of humanity and those who view it as holding an inherent value and right to exist in itself.

It’s in the way this struggle plays out in the character of Martin that most differentiates the film from its source material. Brilliantly cast as the bland, craggy everyman, Dafoe seems to completely inhabit the role, predatory eyes hinting at a coldly utilitarian intelligence. Martin moves through a staggeringly beautiful landscape with profound disinterest, his mind completely focused on his task, constructing snares and traps for the creature with meticulous patience. Each action unfolds with an unerringly ruthless logic: in one scene the hunter guts a wallaby only to throw the body away once a particular organ has been conserved as bait. The possibility of love with Lucy is similarly sacrificed, Martin maintaining the fiction that the children’s father is simply ‘missing’ for as long as it suits the needs of his mission.

This notwithstanding, the demands that commercial cinema have placed on the plot seem to have fundamentally altered the emphasis of the narrative. Unlike the novel, in which Leigh allows her character’s callous and implacable nature to remain ascendant through to a sublimely bleak conclusion, Nettheim and Addison subtly transform the narrative from a story of the consequences of exerting dominance over nature to that of a man becoming aware of his ethical responsibility towards the natural world. While other alterations to the narrative—such as injecting additional tension by heightening the animosity with the loggers and the hidden presence of Red Leaf—result in strong cinema, this larger change sits uneasily with the material, a fact compounded both by the deeply ambiguous resolution that the filmmakers have given their version of the narrative, but also by the cloyingly saccharine coda that manages to undercut all that has gone before.

Anna Krien concluded her superb 2010 overview of the Tasmanian forestry debate, Into The Woods, musing on Edward O Wilson’s vision of the “Age of Loneliness” that will surely follow the Holocene Extinction Event through which we are currently living: “a planet inhabited by us and not much else…no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria, only sadness. I wonder if perhaps the Age of Loneliness has already begun, its effects far more complicated than we realise.” A similar melancholy pervades The Hunter, settling in the hollows of Dafoe’s ravaged face, the stillness of the trees. Narrative niggles notwithstanding, Nettheim's film is an important contribution to Australian cinema.

The Hunter, director Daniel Nettheim, novel Julia Leigh, screenplay Alice Addison, producer Vincent Sheehan, director of photography Robert Humphreys, editor Roland Galois

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 17

© Oliver Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 December 2011