14 Oct 2013

Saved By the Kill: The Hunter

By Tom Greaves

The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)


Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter portrays an existential awakening, an awakening that involves the main protagonist in the discovery of a new sense of what it means to be a hunter. He begins as a contemporary bounty hunter, hired by a pharmaceutical company, trying to track down a creature thought long extinct, the Tasmanian Tiger. They want DNA samples. Significantly, the historical record tells us that the Tasmanian Tiger’s extinction was brought about in part by bounties offered by companies such as the Van Diemen’s Land Company and the Tasmanian government. By the end of the film we are shown a man who has come to respect and love his quarry, and in the process also come to a new understanding of his capacity to care for other people. What is surprising and interesting about The Hunter is that the culmination of this awakening comes in the very act of killing the last tiger, and thus bringing the species finally to complete extinction.

Willem Dafoe as 'Martin David' in The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)
At first this might seem like a familiar excuse for politically naïve macho posturing. Hunters are those who really care for the wild, who really live in the wild, who get to know wild creatures, ultimately in the very act of killing them. They have a hard, adult, masculine understanding of the necessities of life and death. Here we are shown a sequence of events superficially similar to that kind of myth, which reveals very different possibilities.

There at two crucial things that the film can show us that its source novel can at best suggest.[1] The first is Tasmania and the second is the tiger. A brief opening sequence in the confines of a Parisian airport hotel room sets up a stark contrast with what follows in Tasmania, where the land and environment seep into every shot. Not only in the form of breath-taking picturesque vistas, but more intimately, in the form of single trees and sheltering spaces, changing weather and habitats. The hunter finally ends up bivouacking in the tiger’s cave, next to the pelts of wallabies he has killed, a scene echoing and contrasting with the confines of that hotel room.    

Above all the film shows us the tiger. It shows us the tiger in its haunting non-presence. The success of the film hinges on the fact that it finds a way to show a creature that is extinct, in the very way that it exists now in our contemporary world as extinct. When I say the tiger haunts the film, I mean that in the most literal sense. The tiger hardly appears in the film itself, it is hardly glimpsed, just as would be the case if there still were still tigers to be glimpsed. The two glimpses we are given bookend the film, two overpowering visions of the tiger that bring it into the open, whilst at the same time keeping it hidden, withdrawn and sheltered in its true way of being. The first glimpse comes with the opening credits, in the form of the black and white archive footage of the last tiger to die in captivity, footage shot in 1932 in Hobart zoo by David Fleay. It paces its cage with its peculiar stiff gait and opens its unusually wide gaping jaws. 

Archival footage of the Tasmanian Tiger (1932)

The second and final glimpse comes towards the end of the film, when the tiger discovers the hunter in its cave, its form framed in the entrance. This face-to-face is followed by a short chase, where the creature is almost lost in the distance and the snow, and then with just a breath of hesitation, the hunter shoots it.

This scene is perhaps the most judicious and sparing use of CGI every yet produced in cinema. To say the image is life-like would not capture its real quality. That quality gathers something of a living wild creature together with a dream-like apparition and an archetypal totem for a species.

The Tasmanian Tiger at the end of The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)

The two glimpses taken together show us the presence of the tiger in today’s world. It is an archival memory, not long gone, so close to us that it is still animated in the filmed footage of 80 years ago. But the tiger’s trace marks out a trail beyond that time. Tigers are widely believed to have survived in the wild for some decades after that last captive creature died of exposure, having been locked out of its sheltered sleeping area. No sightings were confirmed, but many were reported, whilst calls were heard and traces were found on various expeditions. The general consensus is that the tiger is now extinct, but many ‘believers’ still hunt for it in the wild. If, as seems likely, it died out some time in the sixties or seventies, then the last tiger died unseen in the wild. We thus have the archival memory of the tiger, but we also have lingering traces of the wild tigers and the hope and/or belief in their continued existence. It is this lingering trace, together with one possibility of its final extermination, that we glimpse in the imaginatively generated images towards the end of the film.

There are various ways that one might attempt to decipher the allusions and analogies that come into view in these scenes between hunting and filming. The archive film from the zoo has captured and trapped the living tiger, giving it a lingering animation beyond real living, so that it is available for viewing, in this case by the hunter viewing his quarry. The camera frames and attempts to ensnare its quarry. And of course there are the direct visual and linguistic parallels between both the equipment of filming and hunting and the camera shots and gunshots. Such allusions can be more or less facile or illuminating. What keeps them interesting in the The Hunter is that they are more or less pervasive and ubiquitous, so that the open sense of what it means to be a hunter is at one and the same time the open sense of what it means to be a filmmaker. Neither is played off against the other, nor does one play the role of giving a substantial sense to the other. 

The tiger, as individual and as species, is saved by a solitary and unseen act of killing, in which it is consigned to oblivion. The task that the film sets itself is to show us that in some circumstances, perhaps all too frequently, there is truth in what Lucy, the hunter’s host who is grieving and recovering from debilitating depression, suggests: ‘It’s better off extinct. If it’s alive people will always want to find it and hunt it down.’ The hunter of this film is the one who saves the tiger from the fate of being unendingly hunted, perhaps by those would bring it back through cloning, use it to develop very helpful medicines, or to stare in wonder at its beauty and rarity from the eco-tourist trail. If we have lost all sense that the members of a species are sent to us as gifts, and may in certain circumstances embody the whole dignity of the species in themselves, if there is no room in the world for the sheltered and concealed places from which those individuals are sent to us, then it is the hunter’s duty to release them from the unending ravages of the hunt.[2]

Alone and unaccompanied, the hunter cremates the tiger and scatters its ashes from a cliff-top over the forest. This hidden gesture, aiming at nothing but the recovery an animal’s dignity, might be fruitfully compared to the more urbane secret dog cremations carried out by David Lurie in J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace.[3]

The Hunter, dir. Daniel Nettheim (2011)

The sceptic will ask from whose point of view the tiger is better off extinct. ‘Certainly not from the tiger’s!’, it might be joked. Nor is it better for those who love the tiger and desperately cling on to the ‘belief’ that it is still out there to be rediscovered. Is it then somehow supposed to be ‘better off extinct’ from some God’s eye view that takes into account neither the point of view of the tiger nor of the people who hunt it, remember it and imagine it? The film reminds us that these are not the only options and it recovers for us the point of view that we all begin by participating in and helping to shape, the point of view of ecological communities, as part of which human beings shared and failed to share the world with tigers for thousands of years.

It is salutary and disturbing to discover that before Europeans arrived in Australia tigers had already been close to extinction on the mainland for a long time and their disappearance there is likely to have been due at least in part to competition with Aboriginal hunters. [4] The greatest challenge of the film is to ask us to imagine a case in which these events had not been imagined, in which this hunt had not be shown to us, and in which the tiger remains nothing for us, as itself a case in which the tiger’s life would be revered.

Again, one might be concerned that the ‘secret’ saving power of the hunter’s kill could only have its intended effect if it were somehow preserved and shown to a wider audience, as in effect the film itself does for this imagined scenario. Once the hunter returns to town he makes a single phone call to his employers, telling them ‘What you want is gone forever.’ We get the sense that it will go no further, at least, that the affair will be supressed once they finally satisfy themselves that this is indeed the case. In the case of the tiger, only if the end comes unnoticed is there a chance of what seems wholly impossible, a catastrophic redemption in extinction.

[1] Julia Leigh, The Hunter (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)
[2] For an illuminating account of the way that many hunting societies conceive of the species ‘Guardian’ as a person that can sometimes be embodied in individuals, whilst most individuals do not have personhood in their own right see, Timothy Ingold, ‘Hunting, sacrifice and the domestication of animals’, in The Appropriation of Nature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986). The status of the Tasmanian Tiger in such a scheme would have been highly ambiguous, since it is was not hunted for sustenance.
[3] J.M.Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Vintage, 1999)
[4] Robert Paddle, The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

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