One of cinema’s most constant motifs is the flawed, morally corrupt character who in the last reel listens to his conscience and decides to do the right thing. There’s a good reason for this: Audiences know all too well how easy it is to be a “good German,” and desperately wish it weren’t so. You often know whether you’re watching mainstream or art-house cinema simply by whether the protagonist changes for the better (as in “Gran Torino” or “True Grit”) or stays hopelessly the same (“Hidden,” “The Conformist”).
Not always, though: This month sees a pair of very different films that shuffle the assumptions enough to keep you hooked to the end; both reflect the complex times in which we live by showing how even doing “the right thing” can involve collateral damage.
“The Hunter,” by Australian director Daniel Nettheim, has a lot of things going for it: It’s shot in the untamed Tasmanian wilderness, based on a taut novel by Julia Leigh (“Sleeping Beauty”), cut to wring every bit of suspense from the material, and featuring the craggy face of Willem Dafoe staring through the scope of his hunting rifle. The premise involves a shady contractor named Martin (Dafoe), a former spec-ops type, who is hired by a pharmaceutical firm to hunt the supposedly extinct “Tassie Tiger.” His mission: find the elusive beast, kill it, and bring tissue samples back to the labs, where new genetic material holds promise.
Martin rents a room in the remote mountainous region, only to find that he’s sharing it with a couple of nosy kids and their environmental-activist mother (Frances O’Connor, “A.I.”). The children’s father has disappeared out in the bush, and it may or not have been an accident. The local “bogan” (redneck) loggers, meanwhile, assume that Martin is another meddling green. As Martin sets out on his solitary mission tracking the tiger, it begins to look like he’s being tracked as well.
“The Hunter” is rooted in local color and political tension, which gives it character beyond just another guy-with-a-gun-in-the-woods movie. While the supporting cast is good — especially Sam Neill, as a cagey local who may or may not be a friend — it was an especially bright move by Nettheim to cast Dafoe. This actor has had such a long and varied career, playing both sinners and saints — ranging from the leering Bobby Peru in “Wild at Heart” to a conflicted Jesus of Nazareth in “The Last Temptation of Christ” — that a viewer will have no sure feeling which way his character is going to break in the crunch. Will he warm to the kids and adopt their mother’s green idealism? Or remain a wary loner, doing the company’s bidding? A little more suspense at the climax could have helped, but this is a solid effort.
With “Poetry,” it’s as though Korean director Lee Chang Dong (“Secret Sunshine”) has his hands behind his back: In one hand is a story of an elderly woman slowly losing her memory to Alzheimer’s, and her attempts to keep her mind agile by taking classes in writing poetry. In the other is a story of a death, and the stark reality that a girl’s life means next to nothing in a society rotten with male entitlement. Pick a hand: Not until the final reel will you know which story you got. The again, maybe Lee has cheated and put both in the same hand.
Korean screen star of the 1960s and ’70s Yun Jeong Hie returns after an absence of 16 years at age 66 to play the ditzy grandma Mija, her self-conscious cheeriness masking her worry about her memory and her grandson, Wook (David Lee), who shares her flat. (His mother has moved to Pusan.)
A girl at his junior high was gang-raped and dies after jumping off a bridge; all signs indicate that he knows more than he is saying. In fact, the problem is he says nothing: He slouches out of his bedroom and grunts for dinner, eyes glued to the TV and entirely tuning out anything his grandmother might be saying. It’s a portrait of loutish Asian masculinity that rarely makes it to the screen, but is recognizable enough when it does.
Director Lee builds things slowly and subtly; the pressure on Mija — from work, from her illness and from the families of other boys implicated in the crime — mounts inexorably, but she remains fixated on her inability to write a poem. Will she see what’s staring her in the face? Moreover, is there anything that an old, self-effacing woman can do?
Lee’s film glides along in an almost unperturbed way, like the gently flowing river that opens it. Yet that scene of tranquility is broken by a corpse floating downstream, and a similar thing happens as Mija starts to wrestle with her conscience. The emotional ripples, when they come, impact tenfold.