The Hunter by Julia Leigh: A Review

A couple of months ago I stumbled across a gorgeous little film, The Hunter, that was in and out of the theaters faster than you can blink. I decided to go see it based on the prospect of watching Willem Dafoe, playing as the eponymous character, stalking through the Tasmanian backwoods, rifle in hand, with the stone-blue eyes of determination and patience, a deft and subtle survivalist, a thinking man’s tough guy who can gut it out in the wild for weeks on end without batting a lash. The movie was not a work of perfection—there were a few jerky moments and leaps of faulty logic that gave me pause, and I actually could have watched Dafoe silently stalk his prey out in the wild a little more than offered here, if only to get a truer sense of his isolation. But after reading the novel by Julia Leigh that inspired the film, I feel like the movie got a few more things right than the book did, which is a rarity.

I want to clarify, though, that I don't mean to say the novel wasn’t a quality read. It was, especially the internal narratives of the hunter when he is out in the wild, but the following three things stood out for me and really put the movie over the top.

[WARNING: I tried not to include spoilers, but there are a few key themes and plot points discussed that will reveal some of the details that a moviegoer or reader might want to experience first-hand. Fair warning.]

First, the film was able to build a much deeper sense of fear and looming danger by hinting that the man who went missing hunting the same tiger our protagonist is now hunting did not just go missing, but may have been murdered. The movie also expands the tension between local environmental activists and loggers, who are not just threatening each other, but who are both suspicious of the hunter’s presence. Either group may or may not be actively trying to scare him…or even kill him. We don't know, but the film does a good job of keeping that feeling of treachery and anxiety in the back of the hunter's mind. The novel doesn’t push this idea as much as the film.

Second, the hunter in the film makes some tougher moral choices, I think, making the ending more rewarding. The rare tiger he is hunting is very much desired by biochemical and weapons companies in order to make advances in bio-warfare (somehow). But the job slips out of the hunter's reach the longer he remains in the wild empty-handed. In the book, the hunter is less concerned with whether or not his job is a noble one and focuses on the task at hand, and his failure to finish the job becomes a personal one. His mind begins to unravel toward the end, and he experiences a deep psychological battle with himself as he combats this sense of failure. In the film, the villainy of local operatives and the company seeking the last Tasmanian tiger is more apparent, and while the hunter still struggles with a sense of failure, he more clearly sees how the larger hunt for this prized animal has turned locals and wealthy companies against each other in a murderous lust. This relation affects the hunter's choices in the film more so than in the book. I say this element shows more development as a character, rather than having the hunter coming out of the wild pretty close to the cold-hearted professional he was when he went in, as he does in the book.

Last, the dialogue in the novel, in my opinion, was sub-par…in a Dan Brown, dime-store thriller kind of way. I didn’t believe for a second the discussions the hunter had with the children in his host family, which is in direct contrast with the rest of the excellent writing throughout the book. Leigh has a very satisfying, poetic yet sparse narrative and descriptive style that I enjoyed. At times it was even beautiful. I just didn’t buy into the kiddies’ dialogue at all. In the film, however, I liked the kids. Sass was just as spunky and willful in the film as in the book, but the boy, Bike, was much better in the film. His silence and awkward desire to be close to the hunter works for me, and rather than brushing the family away with tidy circumstance in the novel, the film added an element of tragedy and redemption that again showed the hunter’s development as a character.

I feel both offer compelling reasons to dive into this interesting story, and both offered different takes on the stoic, magnetic character of the hunter, but Dafoe’s performance, the heightened atmosphere of uncertainty and danger, and a more rewarding relationship with his host family helps the film edge out the book by just a bit. Also, the film’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” was absolutely brilliant and now I can’t hear that song without thinking of the moment in the film where it appears. Go find the film (and hell, find the book too), and you’ll see what I mean.