(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) On paper, the premise of Hunt for the Wilderpeople sounds like it leads directly to the dullest film imaginable—some kind of heartwarming bonding thing between a disaffected teenager and his foster father set in the woods of New Zealand. But it’s all in the execution, and considering that it’s from writer/director Taika Waititi (who has achieved considerable name recognition lately thanks to This is What we Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok), it deserves a good look. The first few minutes aren’t that impressive, with a disaffected teenager being welcomed on a farm by a couple of older foster parents. But the film does get crazier and funnier at it goes on, as the teenager’s attempt to run away gets more complicated when his foster father tracks him down, gets injured and the whole thing becomes a national manhunt. The climax is straight out of action blockbusters (albeit tempered by a limited budget), which is not necessarily something that we could have predicted from the quiet onset. There’s a unique comic sensibility to the result, not necessarily based on slapstick or one-liners (although “Skuxx life!” does have its charm), but on off-beat gradual character development and a strong emotional arc. Sam Neill is up to his usual high standards as the foster father, while Julian Dennison is a revelation as the teen protagonist, and Rachel House is hilarious as an overzealous child services officer. It’s another strong comedy from the New Zealand scene—and I was gobsmacked, having spent all of four days in the country, to actually recognize the Auckland train station. It’s a surprisingly engaging film, and a quiet little success in its own right. [March 2019: … and now I see the similarities with Waititi’s earlier Eagle vs. Shark]
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Alongside the kind of frantic urgency that characterizes much of the so-called “thriller” genre these days, it’s a refreshing change of pace to find a film like The Hunter, which trades hyperkinetic editing for meditative long-shots, and character study in lieu of shootouts. Willem Dafoe is a convincing presence as a professional mercenary hunting down a rare creature while dealing with various opponents: He says a lot without saying much, and seems perfectly suited to an introvert lead character. (Meanwhile, Sam Neill also makes an impression in a generally unsympathetic role.) Dafoe’s rugged features reflect that the real star of The Hunter is the Tasmanian countryside: stark and colorful, majestic and harsh. The plot isn’t particularly complicated, but viewers sympathetic to a slower pace will find much to like in the way the film unfolds slowly, gradually ratcheting the tension on its taciturn protagonist. There’s some unexpected philosophical content here, tackling upon environmentalism and the choices that we make in-between duty and emotion. There’s a surprising amount of silence in what is supposed to be a thriller and while the result may not thrill those looking for a bit more movement, the result excels at what it intends to do.