If a movie is going to brood, there are probably few better places to do it than the misty forests and mountains of Tasmania. And what better actor to do the brooding than Willem Dafoe, whose chiseled features are by now an emblem of stony concern. Unfortunately, The Hunter, a new movie from Australia, gives us a few too many things to brood about—the film is a mystery, a thriller, and a (tepid) romance, as well as a tale of spiritual redemption and a cautionary instruction about the incursions of industry into the pristine natural world. I haven't read the Julia Leigh novel on which it's based, but the movie, often gorgeous to watch, is hobbled by plot sprawl.
Dafoe plays Martin David, a "mercenary" of some unspecified sort who has been hired by a shadowy biotech company to fly to Tasmania, the island state off the Australian mainland, and bag a Tasmanian tiger, possibly the last of its kind. This "tiger" (actually a meat-eating marsupial with a rather doglike head) carries a toxin for which the company perceives a lucrative military use. It's just another job for David, and he goes right to work, posing as a university zoological researcher.
His contact in Tasmania is a sketchy character named Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), who lodges David—rather oddly, I thought—in the woodsy home of Lucy Armstrong (Frances O'Connor), who lives there with her husband and two children. The husband—an environmental activist and bane of the local logging operation, which he has been striving to shut down—is nowhere to be seen when David arrives. It was he who claimed to have spotted the tiger, a species long thought extinct; he set out in search of it some months earlier, and has yet to return.
David's interactions with Lucy and the kids awaken dormant feelings of affection and attachment, and his encounters with the hostile loggers lend the story a few jolts of menace. But the best parts of the film follow David on his treks through the picturesque wilderness, setting clever traps and pondering the situation of his singular prey. "I wonder if she's alone," he muses, "just waiting to die."
Dafoe is in every scene, and his ability to hold the screen, even while just sitting out a sudden rain shower, is as remarkable as ever. He's solidly supported by O'Connor, who projects both vulnerability and self-sufficient strength, and by Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock, who are unaffectedly engaging as the kids. But Neill's character is too murkily conceived to be much more than an annoyance; and while director Daniel Nettheim has structured the sequence in which David finally comes face-to-muzzle with the tiger to be unexpectedly moving, it leads to a conclusion that raises too many practical objections to be credible. And at the end of the film, we're left with questions in excess of answers.
ATM is a bare-bones horror film that feels a little long even at 90 minutes, thus giving us more time than it should to savor the story's basic silliness. The movie isn't quite as claustrophobic as the 2010 Buried, also the work of screenwriter Chris Sparling, but it's largely confined to a single dismal setting, which hurries the onset of an inevitable monotony.
At an office Christmas party, a young account manager named David (Brian Geraghty, of The Hurt Locker) finally summons the nerve to approach a pretty coworker named Emily (Alice Eve, who'll be familiar to nudity fans from Crossing Over). David offers to drive Emily home, but before they can get away, another colleague, Corey (reliably enlivening Josh Peck, of The Wackness), invites himself along—he needs a ride home, too. En route, Corey announces a desire for pizza. But he has no cash.
And so David is compelled to pull over for a visit to what would appear to be Hell's ATM—a familiar glass-sided shack situated in a vast dark empty parking lot. It's the middle of the night, and it's cold (we're in Canada), so there's not another soul in sight. Once inside the little ATM enclosure, though, the three friends suddenly notice a hulking figure outside in the dark, his face obscured in the shadow of a hood. "He's just watching us," David unnecessarily observes.
Not for long, of course. When a luckless man walking a dog wanders onto the scene, the mysterious stalker throws him to the ground and mashes his head into the asphalt as if it were a blood-filled melon. Peering out from the ATM, the three friends begin to suspect they're in trouble.
Quite a bit of what follows is peerlessly ridiculous. At one point the hulking guy—whose motivation to kill remains inscrutable throughout—decides to drown the terrified trio by hooking up a water hose he's found at a nearby Christmas-tree concession to a vent in the ATM structure. This raises a couple of questions. One, why would a small Christmas-tree concession need a water hose; and two, why would whatever hose it might need be about a hundred feet long? There's a fleetingly funny moment when hulking guy produces a folding chair so he can sit outside and watch his victims unsurprisingly fail to drown. But it's not enough to distract us from the ever-nagging question of why he didn't just bring a gun along and shoot them.
The ominous stalker is of course a throwback to various Jasons and Michaels and other vintage figures of inexplicable evil. The genre is so played-out by now that this picture would probably work better as a parody. The laughs are already built-in.