A mercenary (Willem Dafoe) is commissioned by an anonymous biotech company to hunt for the last remaining Tasmanian tiger, in the wilds of Tasmania. 

Thriller’s coherence gets lost in the Tasmanian wilderness.

Willem Dafoe has made a lucrative career playing intense, tightly-wound characters in movies such as Platoon, Mississippi Burning, Born on the Fourth of July, The English Patient and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

So it was a smart decision to cast the American actor in the Australian thriller The Hunter as an enigmatic mercenary sent to track down the last surviving Tasmanian tiger, only to find he becomes the hunted.

What wasn’t smart was the failure of director Daniel Nettheim (working on his second feature) and screenwriter Alice Addison to give Dafoe’s character any kind of backstory beyond portraying him as a taciturn loner.

Thus the physically and emotionally demanding journey on which he embarks in the Tasmanian wilderness has no reference points, undermining the rationale for his changes in behaviour and undercutting the empathy that audiences may feel for him.

Equally puzzling is the script’s tendency to pose more questions than it answers. That may not bother anyone who likes Peter Weir-ish conundrums but it’s likely to annoy or frustrate those who crave a logical consistency in the narrative and clear-cut resolutions.

Dafoe’s character calls himself Martin David, posing as a university researcher who’s studying the Tasmanian devil. In reality he’s been hired by a biotech company, Red Leaf Corporation, to harvest potentially lucrative DNA from a Tasmanian tiger.

The screenplay was adapted from the debut novel by Julia Leigh (writer-director of Sleeping Beauty) published in 1999, which I’ve not read. Evidently it establishes the protagonist had a traumatic childhood, topped off by his experiences as a hired hand in military operations, and that he’d had few meaningful relationships.

The movie omits any such history so Martin starts out as a blank slate. Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a local guide, has arranged for him to live in a ramshackle cabin with a woman named Lucy (Frances O’Connor) and her two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (newcomer Finn Woodlock).

Lucy has been near-comatose with medication supplied by Jack since her environmentalist husband Jarrah vanished that summer, and the kids are running wild.

This bizarre situation begs these questions: Why would Jack, supposedly Lucy’s friend and perhaps secret admirer, keep her dosed up on drugs so she neglects her children, and why would he place Martin in her house?

Martin is initially stand-offish with the kids but he gradually warms after hearing what happened to their mother and he chucks out the drugs. After fixing the generator which restores electricity, he undresses the unconscious Lucy and gives her a bath: no doubt meant to convey an act of kindness but it’s very odd behaviour from a stranger. Even creepier, later he hops into the bath, the two kids peel off their clothes and jump in. He protests, Lucy walks in and, unperturbed, mutters, 'I’ll get dinner ready." As you would, right? I think not.

Lucy makes a startling recovery after months in bed and develops a rapport with Martin. But the narrative bogs down, literally at times, as he makes frequent trips into the bush in search of the tiger, setting traps and making notes on his map. To Dafoe’s credit, he manages to hold one’s attention with his intense look and piercing eyes. An air of menace hangs over these hikes as it’s soon clear that he’s not alone out there.

A sub-plot involving loggers (including the obligatory scene where the newcomer is threatened by the locals in a pub) and greenies is introduced but peters out.

The lead-up to the finale poses yet more questions that are left dangling.

O’Connor makes a fair fist of her under-developed hippie character. Neill is typically professional as the conflicted Jack. Davies is okay as the precocious Sass although some of her diction wasn’t clear. Woodcock has an expressive face but his Bike is another enigma: the kid doesn’t speak, not a word, although he seems normal otherwise, and neither his mum nor sister makes any mention of his muteness.

Robert Humphreys’ widescreen lensing takes maximum advantage of the spectacular terrain, capturing its beauty and harshness. The tactic of shooting in low light, avoiding the sunshine, gives the film a cold, grey look.