Can you imagine if scientists discovered one last remaining Tasmanian tiger, which is thought to have been extinct since 1936? It would be a remarkable discovery. World news. Not quite as big as discovering Big Foot, E.T. or the Loch Ness Monster, but sizeable nonetheless. Would we clone it, Jurassic Park-style? Would we stick it in a museum? Send it on a travelling circus show?
Not according to The Hunter, a modest, curious Australian film based on Julia Leigh's novel of the same name, which suggests a far more sinister fate for the beast - if it does indeed exist. Yet as the title suggests, it's not so much about the discovery or the beast itself, but the hunt for it - and the man doing the hunting.
He's Martin (Willem Dafoe), a mysterious mercenary hired by a mysterious company to hunt down said Tassie tiger.
Sightings are confirmed in the Tasmanian wilderness, and while Martin is not told why the company wants the tiger at first, he clearly doesn't care.
To keep his mission secret, he masquerades as a scientist studying Tasmanian devils. A farmer (Sam Neill) arranges for him to stay with a local family in the thick of the Tasmanian forest.
From there, Martin sets out alone, hiking into the wilderness with an array of maps, traps, knives, guns and survival gear to stalk his prey.
Dafoe makes a wonderful lone hunter, using his lithe frame and wolf-like features to great effect and making ingenious little traps. He discovers more about the importance of his mission - and so do we - as the film goes along, with the threat of angry locals and competing hunters building an uneasy sense of tension.
What doesn't work so well is Martin's interaction with the family. There are two precocious kids (Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock) and their drug-addled mother (Frances O'Connor), while the father is an environmental activist who disappeared long ago. As directed by TV veteran Daniel Nettheim, it's all very metaphorical, with the suggestion Martin starts hunting more for the father than the tiger. And as he grows closer to the family, he becomes a father figure to the kids and a confidant to the mother. Perhaps the book makes his character stronger, for Nettheim's direction makes his background and his motives uncertain.
And while Martin learns that the Tiger's venom has lucrative bioweapons applications, there's little tension until the final act when a rival hunter (Callan Mulvey) joins the quest. That final act may be somewhat conventional, but it works better than the rest of the film.
The Hunter comes with some stunning scenery, and Dafoe makes an enigmatic, immensely watchable star - if not a character that makes much sense.
But it lacks the tension to be a thriller and the profundity to be a provocative indie drama. Instead, like that Tassie tiger, it's destined to stay in the wilderness, and a bit of a mystery.
The Hunter is now screening.