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On movies: 'The Hunter' finds its target; 'The Raven' is dreary, weak and weary

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2012 - The last confirmed sighting of the Tasmanian tiger, a striped Australian marsupial about the size of a small wolf, was in the 1930s. The carnivorous creatures are officially extinct, but sightings are occasionally reported, logically enough, on the Australian island of Tasmania.

The premise of “The Hunter,” a tense moral thriller with a strong ecological theme, is that the tiger still lives and that a shadowy biotech company involved in all sorts of international mischief has discovered that the marsupial’s blood contains a substance that could be used for nefarious purposes.

The company hires a professional hunter named Martin (Willem Defoe, appropriately gaunt and sinewy and weary-eyed) to hunt down and kill one of the creatures, quite possibly the last one on earth, and bring back samples of its blood. Arrangements are made for him to live, when he is not in the Tasmanian woods hunting the tiger, at the home of a psychologically fragile woman named Lucy.

Lucy is severely depressed because her field zoologist husband mysteriously failed to return from a trip into the wilds. Her two children, a boy and a girl, seem lost without their father. Martin’s acts of kindness and his mere presence improve the condition of the family.

Martin poses as a zoologist friend of Lucy’s missing husband doing field research on Tasmanian devils, a smaller and more populous indigenous marsupial. He and Lucy are perceived as enemies by loggers in a battle with environmentalists over the forests of Tasmania. A local played by Sam Neill seems to be the only person in town who manages to be friendly with both sides in the dispute, but questions about his real motives add to the undercurrents of tension that add to the dramatic power of “The Hunter.”

Martin spends much of his time on thickly forested mountainsides, looking for the tiger, and the Tasmanian scenery is stunning, looking familiar and at the same time a little strange and spooky to American eyes, increasing the sense of mystery and menace. Then, the shadowy biotech firm puts an oar in the water, stirring up more ripples of tension. Martin, in imminent danger, moves steadily toward an existential decision involving his own life and that of the Tasmanian tiger. The decision leads to a climax that is dramatically stunning but morally debatable, which I hope was what the filmmakers had in mind.

Opened Fri., April 27

‘The Raven’

In “The Raven,” we first meet Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) in a crowded, smoke-drenched Baltimore saloon, where it quickly emerges that he is a self-important, penniless drunken lout who finds it humiliating that he cannot talk the bartender or anyone else into buying him a drink. In a desperate attempt to establish his credentials as a man of substance, indeed of fame, he bellows to the assembled barflies, “Tell me what word comes to mind when you hear, ‘Quoth the raven ...’”

The room fills with a cacophony of shouted responses, none of them on target, and poor Poe has to repeat the question even more loudly before one imbiber tentatively suggests “Nevermore?” Unfortunately, that’s the best bit of dialogue in the movie.  What follows is a turgid, hard-to-swallow, stagy melodrama in which the writer crawls out of the gutter and gets over himself enough to help the police investigate a series of murders that seem to be based on Poe’s own short stories.

Poe really gets sober when the woman he loves (Alice Eve) is kidnapped in a thoroughly unbelievable scene at a masquerade ball. From there, Poe and the police run aimlessly about mid-19th-century Baltimore, chasing “clues” left by the man who is described as a “serial killer,” anticipating the evolution of the American language by more than a century. From time to time a large black crow will appear, for no apparent reason other than to justify the title of the movie. Which could more aptly have been called “Nevermore.”

Opened Fri., April 27

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.