“One undeniable thing about Australia is that it is amazing to look at. Tasmania is presented here as a vast, harsh and uninhabitable foreboding expanse of land. The scenery becomes a character in itself.” – WatchingCattle on Australian thriller The Hunter.
Australia. It’s a country that many of the unemployed Irish seem to flock to in times of crisis. You get postcards and facebook messages (if you’re on that particular piece-of-shit excuse-for-big-brother dressed up as social media tool) that usually tell you the following information: it’s hot, there are beaches and the women wear very little. Well yay. Heat, sand and half-naked ladies. Yay. But if only they weren’t surrounded by… eh… well Australian men frankly. Every year when the compromised, eh I mean international rules football comes on I think “Hey, our meat and two veg eating excuses for athletes, versus theirs. This should be a laugh” and every time I’m proved wrong as it quickly descends into a series of assaults, the likes of which you can only see outside pubs at 3am on O’Connell street or on TV3 at ‘primetime’ during some excuse-for-a-documentary-series which is essentially just drunken arseholes picking fights with passers-by filmed by CCTV and passed off as a harrowing expose when, in reality, it’s TV3 perpetuating the culture of violence by using cheaply sourced material to give you an hour at the Colosseum at 9p.m. on a Monday night.
Okay, to be fair…I’m sure Australians are lovely but they, like us, do a damn good job of convincing the world that they’re a nasty, idiotic bunch of pissheads. There’s a popular (well maybe popular isn’t quite the right word…perhaps infamous) Australian TV show called Dumb, Drunk and Racist. It tries to deal with the difficult relationship between the Australian people and Indian immigrants. The general sense I get is that it’s simply a show which is saying what everyone there already knows but doesn’t really want to talk about.
In terms of cinema, Australia is quite similar to Ireland in a way. Films like Animal Kingdom, Chopper, Snowtown, and even The Dish or Priscilla Queen of the Desert are all set against the backdrop of a very conservative culture of poverty, racism, exclusion and violence. Equally, Irish cinema mirrors this with Adam and Paul, Kisses, Savage, Garage and even The Commitments or The Snapper all set against a similar backdrop – in this case poverty, conservatism and religious oppression. It seems, in many ways, that because of the nature of financing in film a lot of the films are funded (though I’m not saying the funding they receive is a large amount by any means but attaining that funding is like a stamp of approval) by the Arts Council here, or by the Australian equivalent there. As a result they have to address ‘social background’ and the easiest way to make an “important” film is to deal with the dispossessed in a society. I’m not saying that this is in and of itself the wrong way of going about film production – it would be ridiculous to make a film devoid of any social context. However, it is also worth noting that the films we made here during a stage that Ireland was reported to have the highest standard of living in the E.U never managed to deal with this fact and instead choose to still portray Irelands’ working class as poverty stricken, drinkers, wife and child abusers and/or heroin addicts. Indeed all these dark traits do exist, but they really can’t be identified with by the vast majority of people – even those who would consider themselves working class. For example, I’m working class. I’ve never done heroin, raped, killed or assaulted anyone. I have perfectly nice parents and I’m not quite an alcoholic. Most of the island can relate to this statement I’m sure. And so ultimately the films we produce don’t really relate to our experience of Ireland. Since film, like photography, is primarily a middle class art, (and If you don’t believe me take a walk around the National Film School at IADT and listen carefully to the accents you hear) the films we make are very much a case of the middle classes speaking about the working classes and telling us how bad we have it. I’m sure this is probably true of Australia, Compton, Harlem, Les Banlieues and anywhere else which has become a one-dimensional cinematic cliche over the past 50 years.
That said, in America, France and Britain, films are more readily funded in their entirety by the private sector and so, with this, comes the freedom to take risks. As a result, the majority of films produced are utter shit. On the other hand they’ve also managed to produce films which deal with a broader range of society and theme. For every Taxi Driver there’s something like Brazil which still relates to society but does so in a far more outlandish and risky way. For every La Haine there’s a City of Lost Children and so on. Of course every now and again here in Ireland, there’s a film which comes along and breaks the mould – Pyjama Girls and His and Hers being excellent Irish examples. Also, this week Pat Collin’s Silence opens, an elegiac quiet and utterly original take on a very Irish theme of migration, exile and home. And this week The Hunter opens too. It’s an Australian film which is, of course, set against the backdrop of the ‘dumb, racist and drunk’ society of rural Australia but manages to nicely eschew its simple context and instead serves up something occasionally cliched but, equally occasionally, original and haunting.
The plot surrounds a hunter played by Willem Dafoe (because it never hurts to have an American to secure funding for your project – just ask the lads who made The Guard) who is sent to Tasmania to find and kill what is possibly the last remaining Tasmanian Tiger on the planet. On arrival he is met by, firstly a family in crisis (cue cliche number one) with whom he will stay when he’s not hunting and, secondly, the drunk, racist and plain dumb locals who ‘don’t take kindly to strangers’ (cue cliche number two). Of course this is Willem Defoe and not Steven Seagal, so he doesn’t just kill everyone in town. And, since this is a serious film adapted from a serious novel, he just goes about his business – uncovering conspiracies and saving the family from implosion while creating a meaningful relationship with both the mother and two children and generally fulfilling a fairly predictable narrative which drives the film along. Make no mistake, there are lots of things wrong with this film.
Yet, what’s right with the film and the reason to bother seeing it is that, first and foremost, the performances are excellent. This is Dafoe’s film. He’s in virtually every shot and he traverses the hardman-hunter-with-a-heart ground with his customary skill and intensity. Driven and isolated half the time and warm and caring the other, he’s excellent here and carries the film through even its dodgier turns and more predictable moments. Young Morgana Davis is also excellent as the quirky, foul-mouthed nine year old girl who melts Mr. Intensity’s heart and there are some nice moments between the two which just about stop the film from becoming too schmaltzy. There are also fine turns by Sam Neil as a well meaning guide and Frances O’Connor as a grieving mother. What elevates The Hunter above the cliches and the issues with plotting are the scenes in which Dafoe goes hunting. One undeniable thing about Australia is that it is amazing to look at. Tasmania is presented here as a vast, harsh and uninhabitable foreboding expanse of land. The scenery becomes a character in itself. The enigmatic but ever present oppressive presence, hiding its secrets in its vast beauty. The scenes without dialogue in which Dafoe searches for the elusive tiger, and the equally elusive truth of the events which have lead to his arrival, are brilliantly filmed.
In the end The Hunter manages (only just) to escape the possibly accurate (probably not) but now cliched depiction of Australia and the equally cliched aspects of modern thriller. Dafoe and Davis are excellent and the quiet assuredness of the direction by Daniel Netthiem makes it a cut above the average thriller. In other words it’s a better film than On Deadly Ground which, frankly, is shit.
Bet I get more shit from Seagal fans than Australians for this.