In the new drama “The Hunter,” opening today at Living Room Theaters at FAU, Willem Dafoe plays the kind of role that has typecasted Liam Neeson of late – a take-no-shit lone wolf battling unknown, nefarious entities, from harsh terrains to hyperbolic bad guys. In an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Julia Leigh, he plays Martin David, an American mercenary with a soft spot for opera and mood lighting. Enjoying tranquility in Paris, he is soon dispatched to Australia to capture the last remaining Tasmanian tiger in existence so that a shady biotech company can extract its valuable toxin.
We hear all of this in voice-over exposition that typifies the film’s tendency to condescend to its audience: David’s employer speaks in a nondescript but discomforting European accent, full of ominous warnings and unnatural pauses, like an arch Bond villain of yore. Augmenting the action with an already aggravating pulse-quickening score, director Daniel Nettheim gives the game away too soon.
This unsubtle suggestion of twists to come continues with the introduction of Jack (Sam Neill), the caretaker for the troubled family with whom Martin has been designated to lodge. He knows too much, and by extension, so do we, with Nettheim again showing his cards too soon and relying on stodgy formulae and familiar conceits. The few barroom confrontations Martin has with a handful of militant locals are almost laughable in the amount of material they crib from “Straw Dogs.”
Judging by this, the director’s first feature film in 11 years, Nettheim likes the simple grammar of commercial cinema a bit too much. There are some interesting ideas in the periphery of “The Hunter,” notably the contrast between Martin’s cushy private life, with its mp3 players, GPS navigators and perfectly organized sink basins, with his professional life – messy forays into the existential wilderness. And the more Martin hunts for his elusive prey, the more he becomes prey himself, with Nettheim skillfully evoking this transition. The scenes with Martin alone, organizing traps, building fires and braving Mother Nature, are fascinating in their languid isolation.
But for the most part, “The Hunter” suffers from a case of burying the lead. This unrelenting downer is, or should have been, an angry treatise on the power of corporate greed at the expense of endangered species. But it is packaged as a callow suspense film, hedging its bets on mass-market populism and crushing its own distinction in the process.
“The Hunter” is at Living Room Theaters at FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets are $5 to $9.50. Call 561/549-2600 or visit fau.livingroomtheaters.com.