Editor’s Note: This review first ran as part of our SXSW coverage on March 11, but The Hunter is hitting limited theaters this week.

The Hunter is a film of surprising scope and intimacy. On the outside, it’s a basic “dangerous hunting” tale, but on the inside, it’s a story of a man, said hunter (Willem Dafoe), connecting with people on an emotional level for what might be the first time in his life. That reeks of hokiness, but with with an assured directorial hand, most of the drama is calm and collected.

A lot of that stems from Dafoe, giving the sort of high caliber performance we’ve grown to expect from him. Martin David is a hunter of the illegal sort, and he’s given quite the challenge: get a sample from a Tasmanian tiger. Not an easy task. When we’re introduced to Martin, he’s shown in isolation, completely out of place in a snazzy hotel room. After his hunting services are acquired by a biotech company, Martin heads down to an unfriendly Australian town to seek out the tiger. He stays at a broken family’s home, where he ends up having to look after and connect with two children whose father may or may not be dead. You see the cold Martin get humanized by the children, as expected – and it’s affective, due to Dafoe.

The early scenes between Martin and the children are a tad clunky and tonally uneven, but perhaps that’s the intention on director Daniel Nettheim‘s part. Martin doesn’t turn into a big fluffy teddy bear all of a sudden. For most of the film, he’s a calm animal. When Martin is on the hunt, it’s the character at his most concentrated, dangerous, and alive.

But that doesn’t mean that The Hunter becomes a “he really had a heart of gold the whole time, you guys!” story either. Even in a moment which could possibly take a bad turn towards (unnecessary) romance, Martin completely botches a potentially sweet moment with his coldness. When Lucy (Frances O’Connor) asks what he thinks of her new haircut, Martin responds, “I liked it better before.” That should give you a solid idea of his brand of romanticism.

While there’s a murkiness to all of this, there’s nothing but clarity when we Martin roaming the woods. The closure to the family storyline is not as satisfying – and it’s even a tad jarring, in a negative way – as the conclusion to Martin’s personal hunting tale. The final moments we get with him are surprisingly moving, and it elevates The Hunter to a memorable character study that only suffers from a few hiccups in narrative.

The Upside: Willem Dafoe’s presence, the atmosphere, the Tasmanian tiger CG is effect unexpectedly good, intriguing set-up and strong follow through.

The Downside: A certain big incident is out of place.

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