Based on Julia Leigh's book of the same name, The Hunter follows mercenary Martin David (Willem Dafoe) who is hired by a faceless biotech company to find and kill the last Tasmanian tiger. The tiger might excrete a paralyzing chemical that could make the biotech company millions.
To find it, the company sets Martin up in a cabin owned by the widow of a dead environmental activist. Martin uses the house as a base camp for his hunt, but he finds his attachment to the widow Lucy (Frances O'Connor) and her two children growing as his quest slowly unfolds.
The actual Tasmanian tiger was probably hunted to extinction in the 1930s, but myths surrounding it, as well as reported sightings, are very real, and the animal has become the legendary beast it's portrayed as in the movie.
Much of the book takes place inside Martin's head, but for the film, director Daniel Nettheim pulls the camera way back and we often watch Dafoe's Martin from a distance, seeing him as a bantam in a vast, open backcountry. In doing this, Nettheim turns Tasmania into a character, one that is beautiful but capricious. The film was shot entirely on the Australian island and both the director's and Defoe's greatest strength is their ability to adapt to the unpredictable and profound landscape.
When watching The Hunter, one is tempted to bring in meaning that isn't there. Martin represents the modern man -- isolated and violent -- and he is also the tiger, and so the tiger is us. That's certainly not what's happening, but this aggrandizing is a product of the film's setting, which is so mysterious and expansive that the viewer needs to fill it with meaning or else be lost and consumed in the tall grass and kettle lakes of the Tasmanian outback.
Nettheim agrees. The director said that the tiger is a catalyst for Martin's much deeper journey into himself, and while the artist's opinion of his own work shouldn't matter when assessing that work, in this instance he's right. The Hunter is not about the capture of a wild animal but the domestication of a wild man.
Martin, a seasoned killer, has fallen out of society and cannot get back in without doing something extreme. To show us this, Nettheim and his writing partner Alice Addison make Martin uncomfortable everywhere but in the wilderness. He is ill at ease while bathing the modern luxury of a Paris hotel room and agonized in a cold water cabin on the outskirts of town. He can skin a wallaby, but he can't talk to an eight year old girl.
But, the world is encroaching and Martin is no longer safe in his solitude. Loggers are trying to cut down the forest; suspicious activists are filling the woods. Unless he abandons his old self and joins society, Martin will be killed, either by the rough locals, his employer (who has sent a hit man out to find him) or by the crushing push of modernity, which is close at his heals. The cabin is the midway point between the woods and the real world and each time he returns he stays longer, getting acclimated to his future.
The makes Martin a tragic hero. The story is not Martin's journey into himself, but his journey out of himself. And, by nature of who he is and of his mission, that journey has to be violent. Martin the Hunter needs to die (symbolically), lying in a cave surrounded by the bones of other animals, if he's going to survive and make it out into the world.