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Willem Dafoe’s “The Hunter”: Right on Target?

April 11, 2012

With his devil’s-mask visage, Willem Dafoe makes a natural screen villain, which made his breakout role as the messianic Sgt. Elias in Platoon (not to mention his titular turn in The Last Temptation of Christ) all the more compelling. In recent years, he’s alternated between mega-budget genre flicks (Spider-Man, John Carter) and dark arthouse fare (AntiChrist, 4:44 Last Day on Earth). Dafoe does his strongest work in years in The Hunter, currently in limited theatrical release and available on VOD.

Not to be confused with Steve McQueen’s 1980 cinematic swan song, The Hunter is based on a novel by Julia Leigh (the Aussie auteur behind last year’s twisted Sleeping Beauty) and casts Dafoe as an American soldier-for-hire employed by a shady military contractor to track the last Tasmanian tiger in the outback. The creature’s DNA is the key to bio-engineering a new weapon, and Dafoe spends much of the film silently stalking his prey in the wilderness, dazzlingly shot by veteran Oz TV director Daniel Nettheim.

The film thematically echoes everything from Jurassic Park via the casting of Sam Neill as a local who leads Dafoe into the wild to the fierce Australian crime thriller Animal Kingdom, which shares The Hunter‘s producers as well as costar Sullivan Stapleton. Another home-grown talent, the British-born but Aussie-raised Frances O’Connor (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), stirs up potent chemistry with Dafoe as a mom who welcomes him into her family and helps him rediscover his humanity.

The Hunter sneaks up on you, quietly building to a shattering emotional climax. With the precision of a high-powered rifle, this unjustly underheralded movie—and Dafoe’s creatively revivifying performance—will blow you away.

What’s your favorite Willem Dafoe film role? Am I the only one who loved him in Light Sleeper, Auto Focus, Streets of Fire and To Live and Die in L.A.?

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