The title of Julia Leigh’s novel is a very appropriate double entendre for the main character of this haunting film adaptation, representing more one man’s fascinating and harrowing journey of self discovery that forever challenges expectations than the literal sense and job title of the protagonist. Director Daniel Nettheim only had one actor in mind and it’s clear why veteran actor Willem Dafoe was the only choice to encompass a mature soul needing self preservation by revisiting nature’s power over mankind.
Dafoe is Martin David, a loner and mercenary who is sent by a large corporation to the Tasmanian wilderness to hunt down the last Tasmanian Tiger. While on his travels Down Under, David lodges with a young family, deeply affected by their missing father who was said to know the whereabouts of the animal. As David gets to know them further and learns of the local grievances that affect them and their simple lifestyle, he begins to question his true purpose on the trip and in life, plus the real intentions and ethics behind the task he has been set
Nettheim’s thriller has a fluid and deliberately paced realism to it, strongly emphasised by the patient nature of its protagonist and his deadly task. The beautifully gritty cinematography both accentuates the ever-present and hidden dangers of a manmade threat, as well as Mother Nature’s unpredictability, so there is always a queasy sense of menace – even when the film warms to the cozy innocence surrounding the children in their home. In fact, there is an overriding feeling of insecurity for all players on screen, as every living thing is rendered potentially vulnerable – not just the mythical, last-remaining Tasmanian Tiger. For this reason, there is an instant empathy and subliminal investment you make in all the characters as you watch them adapt on their way to their individual fate
Dafoe takes on the part of David with the full intensity, sensitivity and defiance that you would expect, playing to the darker nature of his character that suitably remains an enigma with a full range of subtle shades of personality, while experiencing an epiphany when he is forcibly re-introduced into familiar company. There are some wonderfully underplayed moments as he as David struggles with new senses and sentimentality where the kids are involved as the mercenary inside him merely tries to solve the problem as best as he’s trained to
Sam Neill as local go-to Jack Mindy represents the fragile nature of the townsfolk, confused by his loyalties and terrified for the future. It’s an arresting sight to witness a man losing control, and his dynamic with Dafoe as David is an intriguing one to watch that triggers a whole number of unexpected emotions from both. This is very much a character-led study that shows Dafoe’s supreme talent, even though Neill feels a little underused
Apart from being stunning to watch, in terms of the haunting scenery, Dafoe always manages to portray a thought with apparent ease, making him gripping to watch for his next reaction to the situation. This is indeed a slow-burner about survival in general that may seem predictable in parts and meander in others, but the intensity with which the psychological developments suddenly manifest is its ultimate power