Saturday, March 31, 2012

Darkness Visible

Australian novelist Julia Leigh wrote and directed the strange Sleeping Beauty (reviewed on this blog some months ago) and wrote the titular novel upon which The Hunter is based.

Once again ignoring parts of reality she doesn't like, she bases her ecological or landscape thriller on a what-if notion.

That is, what would happen if there were still one so-called Tasmanian tiger alive, one which had a quality that would make an aspect of its DNA desirable to a multi-national corporation.

Nothing entirely far-fetched about that. There is a case in South Africa where some or other multinational wants to use a Bushman (or San) hunger-suppressant for dieting reasons. The question is, what do the Bushmen (the name they prefer) get out of it?

So it's a matter of ethics and indigenous medicinal rights.

In this film, Willem Dafoe plays the hunter who will get the last "tiger" so that his employee can get a similar advantage from the animal. But the last "tiger" was seen a few decades ago and the film involves a lot of Dafoe traipsing through a breathtaking Tasmanian wilderness.

If he is infinitely more watchable than Ryan Gosling, then it still doesn't prevent this thriller from being boring, especially when compared with the next film on the menu.

I have quoted a Time critic who said the Sundance Film Festival does nothing but promote families-in-crisis movies, but last year there was the very watchable, scary and Oscar-nominated regional drama, Winter's Bone. This year writer/director Sean Durkin won the prize as best director for Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Every now and again we read about some or other cult gone wrong in America. Always there are the basic similarities. They are run by some kind of charismatic man who has more than one sexual partner in a commune-like setup, they are isolated, and they think that the "real", materialistic America stinks.

The ironic beauty of this commune is that it's rather ramshackle, it's right next to a public road and its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes being as terrifying as he was in Winter's Bone), is a sleazebag philosopher who nevertheless manages to coerce the other women into preparing his next sexual initiate with drugs.

He really gives the impression that he's merely a medium for weak people's gullibility, yet never have I seen or heard a more terrifying folk song than the one he plays. It's creepy in a way no tricksy slasher porn can be.

The film more or less starts where most Hollywood movies on the subject would end: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) leaves the commune to go and live with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). From there on director Durkin manages to keep us in a state of uncertainty and building suspense as he switches back and forth from rundown commune to upper-crust lacustria.

If the former is shown as scary, the latter is not portrayed as all that normal or desirable either. In fact, Lucy's concerns with household cleanliness by the lake, trying for a baby and placating her burnt-out engineer husband come across as patently sterile and absurd.

The uncertainty is achieved by way of claustrophobic close-ups so that we're never quite sure where we are and, occasionally, who is whom. This is the whole idea. Like many aspects of religion, the idea is that personality is subjugated to doctrine, hence the title. Identity is variable, ultimately meaningless.

Finally, you just wait for the cult members (nice, normal-looking folk) to catch up with Martha and her stressed-out pregnant sister and do unspeakable things to them. That it is left up to our imaginations makes it all the more terrifying.

Robert Redford's attempt at creating a more truthful form of American cinema via his Sundance Institute is finally paying off, handsomely.

Neil Sonnekus 

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