In search of the thylacine: The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim, 2011)

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The Hunter may have a famous Hollywood name in leading man Willem Dafoe, but it’s steeped in Australian history and contemporary Australian issues – specifically, Tasmanian. It also has a streak of speculative fiction, which it treats in a straight-faced manner that becomes highly meaningful where it intersects with the real world. It’s an underseen film that should have a broad appeal to those who are willing to follow the story where it leads.

Dafoe is Martin, a professional hunter who’s been employed by a mysterious corporation to go to Tasmania and retrieve specimens from a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine. This oddly mournful-looking animal has been extinct since 1936, wiped out by a combination of disease and government sponsored extermination. The last individual in captivity died through simple neglect, and is preserved through haunting footage taken by naturalist David Fleay, which appears in this film’s credits. Though Martin is ostensibly a disinterested observer, he becomes drawn into the tragedy of the thylacine, as well as the ongoing environmental battles that are still being fought in Tasmania today.

The book by Julia Leigh that The Hunter is based on is told through Martin’s perspective, but the film puts us firmly outside his head. This leads to subtle character development and leaves us guessing at how his experiences change him. During his work, he lodges with Lucy (Frances O’Connor), whose environmentalist husband also believed that there are still thylacines out there, and is now is missing and presumed dead. Lucy has become too depressed to look after her children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Martin’s deepening connection with the family could seem trite, were it not for the fact that it isn’t always clear what he feels about them. Martin is an inexpressive character, speaking little, and spending much of the film outdoors and alone. Dafoe creates a sense that there is something going on behind Martin’s barriers, and ably handles the moments where they crumble completely.

The film’s supporting cast is also strong. Davies and Woodlock are vital to the film’s success, and they seem natural in their roles. Sam Neill conveys a good deal as local man Jack, who, unlike Martin, is sure of what he wants but is unable to reach for it. O’Connor’s character could have been given more space, but she works well enough where given the chance.

Beyond the many scenes exploring Tasmania’s unique landscapes with wonderful clarity, The Hunter has a couple of standout points. One features excellent use of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” which was signed off on by the man himself. Another involves a terribly tense sequence that feels quite different from the rest of the film, but which the film would be weaker without. It suggests that Nettheim has more in his bag of tricks to show audiences in the future.

Nettheim claims he had no intentions of delivering a political message here. However, it is the contrast between Tasmania’s beauty and depictions of environmental destruction and exploitation that gives the film its power. Were it pure fiction, The Hunter would seem a little unambitious, but the authenticity of this film’s portrayal of the stakes that have been and still are at play in Tasmania, and all around the world, lend impact to this story.

A killer’s game: No Name on the Bullet (Jack Arnold, 1959)

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The extent to which Audie Murphy gets derided for his acting is, I think, a little unfair. An actor doesn’t need to be able to adopt two dozen different accents or transform their appearance or even be particularly versatile to be effective in a film. As for the fact that Murphy was only taller than his onscreen love interests through artificial means… Perhaps it says more about ideas of gender (in the 50s, if not now) than anything else that the most decorated American soldier in WWII had to stand on a box to look manly.

Murphy had a fast draw and strong horse-riding skills, and worked well in the three westerns I’ve seen him in thus far. He has a great rapport with Dan Duryea in Ride Clear of Diablo, which is a hugely enjoyable movie. Though it pains me to say it, he’s better than Duryea in Night Passage – he has a good amount of swagger and gets to be the only character to make any negative comments about James Stewart’s accordion. And in No Name on the Bullet, he plays against type and makes John Gant one of the film’s best attributes. It helps that No Name on the Bullet has a clever premise, but as the only name actor in the film, Murphy keeps his character intriguing to watch.

Gant is a notorious assassin for hire, and when he rides into the small town of Lordsburg, the locals assume he’s there for one of them. As Gant points out more than once, everyone has enemies, and this is proven out as the townsfolk react to his passivity by turning on him, themselves, and each other. The only man who doesn’t fear Gant is Luke Canfield (Charles Drake), the local doctor. He’s a good-hearted optimist, and as he tries to get to know Gant, their worldviews clash.

No Name on the Bullet is directed without imagination by Jack Arnold, which brings the characters to the forefront. The film’s twists and turns stay interesting, and the moral conflict between Gant and Canfield steadily comes to a boil. Drake is the only actor other than Murphy who I recognise here (his character is memorably shown up by (who else?) Dan Duryea in Winchester ’73), and he ably plays Canfield as a man who has his convictions tested in ways he never expected. His affable manner stands in contrast to Gant’s cold, inexpressive demeanour, with Murphy avoiding any temptation to overplay his character in the slightest.

The film is strongly fatalist, but not in an oppressive way. It could feasibly have been blacker, but it is enough, perhaps, that Gant is at times made more disturbing by the sole fact that he’s being portrayed by Audie Murphy. This plays somewhat into the film’s theme of concealed darkness. So, Murphy’s not a great actor, and he’s short – but No Name on the Bullet is a good little film, and Murphy’s performance is no laughing matter.