From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2013:
Starring Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor, & Sam Neill. Directed by Daniel Nettheim.
Adapted from novel The Hunter by Julia Leigh. Porchlight Films, 2011 (Australia). U.S. release on April 6, 2012.
By Kim Bartlett & Wolf Clifton
A year after release, the 2012 film The Hunter remains worth a second look. Based on the novel The Hunter by Julia Leigh, the film version stars Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor, and Sam Neill. Dafoe, a mercenary, hunts the last living thylacine, or “Tasmanian tiger,” on assignment from a biotech company that hopes to isolate, identify, and somehow use the toxin that thylacines are said to have used to paralyze prey.
In truth, thylacines were not venomous. The last known thylacene was captured in 1930, and died in 1936 at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Australia. The zoo itself, which had kept thylacenes since 1909 and was the only zoo that ever had any, was closed in 1937. Rumors have persisted, however, that remnant thylacenes may still exist in the wild.
For 75 years now the history of demise of the thylacene has been recited by zoological conservationists as a parallel to the story of the 1914 demise of the last passenger pigeon at the Cincinnati Zoo, after 57 years of failed attempts to pass protective legislation and more than a dozen years of captive breeding failures. But the “moral” of the thylacene and passenger pigeon stories is usually represented entirely in terms of preserving species. The Hunter ends with a different message, worth contemplating in the context of considering individual animal welfare and rights.
The hunter character, Dafoe, begins to identify with and care about the family of a zoologist he stays with. The zoologist died trying to track the thylacene, hoping to save the species. The family does not realize that Dafoe has been sent to kill the thylacene.
Dafoe is also touched, despite himself, by the words of their “greenie” friends. O’Connor, playing the widow of the zoologist, offers that the plight of the thylacene is very sad––just killing prey and eating and waiting for death all alone, and as long as people believe she is there, they will be trying to hunt her down.
Other mercenary individuals are tracking Dafoe and the thylacene, at least one them hired by the same bio-cloning company. Someone burns down the home of the zoologist’s family, killing the mother and daughter; the young son is taken away.
When Dafoe finally sees the thylacene out of cover, she turns and looks at him. He raises his rifle. She continues to look at him. Finding himself unable to shoot, Dafoe lowers his rifle. The thylacene lowers her head as if disappointed. Raising the rifle, Dafoe shoots her. He begins to cry and continues to cry as he builds a fire and cremates her body. Then he takes the ashes and scatters them to the winds from a cliff.
Returning to “civilization,” Dafoe calls the bio-cloning company and tells them that they can’t have what they want, that the thylacene is gone forever. Then he goes looking for the zoologist’s son and is reunited with him.
Dafoe’s character may have felt that he did a good deed by ending the life of the lonely tiger and sending her species into extinction. Certainly he started out doing the job he was hired to do, but he never seemed totally comfortable about it, and he seemed to be a man of decent character and habits.
The Hunter contrasts the issues that motivate Dafoe’s character with the selfishness of the bio-cloning company, which wants to obtain the biologically valuable properties of the thylacene but at cost of causing the extinction of the species, so that competitors cannot gain access to the thylacene’s DNA.
The perspective of conservationists who care little about the lives and well-being of individual animals, so long as the DNA of favored specimens replicates, is not specifically represented in The Hunter. However, the ruthlessness of the biotech company mirrors that of conservationists who remove rare animals from the wild to spend the rest of their lives in cages as part of captive breeding experiments, and exterminate countless other animals to enhance the chances of survival of remnant populations whose native habitat no longer even exists, due to development and climatic change.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kim Bartlett & Wolf Clifton are members of the ANIMAL PEOPLE (AP) editorial team.
Kim, a veteran animal defense activist, serves as publisher for AP, in addition to her work incubating animal groups around the world. Wolf Clifton, her son, recently graduated from Vanderbilt. His interests span philosophy, ecoanimal questions, art, video production, and anthropology. He has often contributed art and commentary to AP.